Health Highlights: March 11, 2014

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Here are some of the latest health and medical news developments, compiled by the editors of HealthDay:

Cost of New Hepatitis C Drug Too High: Experts

Some health care experts are questioning whether a recently-approved hepatitis C drug is worth $1,000 a pill.

The price set for Sovaldi by manufacturer Gilead Sciences Inc. makes it a "low value" treatment in comparison to the cost of using older drugs, the California Technology Assessment Forum voted Monday, the Associated Press reported.

Using Sovaldi instead of current hepatitis C drugs would boost California's drug costs by $18 billion to $29 billion a year, according to the fourm, which is an insurance industry-associated group that gauges the cost and effectiveness of new treatments.

A final report on Sovaldi is expected to be released by the forum next month, along with its conclusions about another new hepatitis drug called Olysio, from Johnson & Johnson.

Sovaldi, which was approved late last year by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, is taken once a day and cures between 80 and 90 percent of patients. Previous standard treatments for hepatitis C required taking up to 12 pills a day, which is effective in about 75 percent of patients, the AP reported.

While Sovaldi was enthusiastically received by doctors due to its convenience and better results, some health providers and patient groups are starting to question its cost. A 12-week course of the drug costs $84,000, and some patients need to take two courses.

State Medicaid providers should deny coverage for the drug until Gilead lower the price, the AIDS Healthcare Foundation said in January. It said that the drug's price "will unnecessarily drive up health care costs and limit access to potentially lifesaving care," the AP reported.

"AHF believes that the price Gilead is charging for Sovaldi is not remotely justified. For one, it is exponentially more expensive than medications for other severe chronic conditions," the group said.

For example, the cost of Sovaldi is 1,100 percent more than the $80 per pill that Gilead charges for its most costly HIV drug, Stribild, according to the foundation.

Gilead provides financial assistance to patients who aren't able to afford the drug and related insurance costs, a company spokeswoman told the AP. She added that many private insurers are already covering the drug.


7 Million Americans Have Artificial Joints: Study

More than two percent of Americans, or seven million people, have artificial hips or knees, a new study says.

Among people over age 50, five percent have a new knee and more than two percent have a new hip, according to the findings presented Tuesday at a meeting of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, the Associated Press reported.

Each year in the U.S., people receive more than 600,000 knee replacements and about 400,000 hip replacements. However, this is the first study to examine how many Americans currently have joint replacements.

"They are remarkable numbers," study leader Dr. Daniel Berry, chairman of orthopedic surgery at the Mayo Clinic, told the AP.

The number of Americans with joint replacements is expected to rise as the population ages. One reason for the increase is that people have become less willing to put up with painful joints and know that joint replacements can help them, Berry said.

The number of knee replacements among Americans ages 45 to 64 more than tripled over the last decade, and nearly half of hip replacements now are in people younger than 65, according to federal government data.

Joint replacement is not for "anybody who has pain in the joint," Berry told the AP. He explained that it won't help people who have arthritis-related pain and stiffness but no joint damage.

People need to try exercise, medicines and weight loss before they consider joint replacement, Dr. Joshua Jacobs, chairman of orthopedic surgery at Rush University Medical Center and president of the orthopedic surgery association, told the AP.


Medicare Drug Plan Changes Withdrawn by White House

Proposed changes to the Medicare prescription drug program have been withdrawn by the Obama administration after strong opposition from patient groups.

The changes would have included removal of three classes of drugs -- antidepressants, antipsychotics and immune system-suppressing drugs used in transplant patients -- from a special protected list that guarantees seniors access to a wide number of important medications, the Associated Press reported.

It was estimated that the changes would save a total of $729 million by 2019. However, the proposal met heavy resistance from patient groups such as the National Alliance on Mental Illness and the National Kidney Foundation.

In a letter to Congress on Monday, Medicare administrator Marilyn Tavenner said the White House will not proceed with the changes, the AP reported.

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