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Health Highlights: May 16, 2006

U.S. Senators to Push for Eliminating Medicare Rx Plan Penalty FDA Orders Stronger Warnings on Three Asthma Medicines Report Identifies Top Preventive Health Services FDA Approves Resumed Sales of Synthetic THC Drug Tooth Fairy Paying More: Poll U.S. Teen Abuse of Rx Pain Killers Called 'Entrenched Behavior' Nancy Reagan Backing Could Help Embryonic Stem Cell Bill

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

U.S. Senators to Push Elimination of Medicare Rx Plan Penalty

A bipartisan group of senators announced late Tuesday that they would push legislation to eliminate the financial penalty on people who sign up late for the new U.S. Medicare prescription drug benefit plan.

The announcement came just 13 hours after Monday's deadline for enrollment, The New York Times reported.

Bush administration officials, who have defended the penalty for the last six months, said it was premature to take a position on the issue, the newspaper said.

Monday's deadline prompted a rush as people who'd waited until the last minute signed up in order to avoid the late-enrollment penalty.

While phone calls to UnitedHealth Group were generally answered within two minutes, callers to Humana often had to wait more than 30 minutes. They're the two biggest Medicare insurers, with 45 percent of the market.

Callers to Medicare's toll-free line often had to wait more than 15 minutes, the Times reported.

The Bush administration has said it would not waive the financial penalty for people who missed Monday's initial sign-up deadline. That penalty will increase future premiums by 7 percent or more.

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FDA Orders Stronger Warnings on Three Asthma Medicines

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has ordered the makers of the asthma drugs Advair Diskus, Foradil Aerolizer and Serevent Diskus to update their labels with new warnings that the medicines may increase the risk of severe asthma episodes, and death when those episodes occur.

The medicines belong to a class called long-acting beta 2-adrenergic agonists (LABA), which are long-acting bronchodilator medicines that help relax the muscles around the airways in the lungs.

Even though LABAs decrease the frequency of asthma attacks, they can make asthma attacks more severe when they do occur, the FDA said in a public health advisory released Monday.

The advisory highlights a number of recommendations, including not to use LABAs as the first medicine to treat asthma or to treat wheezing that is getting worse.

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Report Identifies Top Preventive Health Services

Daily aspirin use, immunization for children and smoker interventions lead a list of the top 25 beneficial and cost-effective preventive health services for Americans, which was released Tuesday by the Partnership for Prevention.

However, the report also found that more than 50 percent of Americans who need recommended preventive health services go without them.

"Currently, about 95 percent of healthcare dollars in the United States are spent on treating diseases, with relatively little attention paid to preventing diseases, which should be a national priority," Dr. David Satcher, former U.S. Surgeon General and chair of the National Commission on Prevention Priorities (NCPP), a blue-ribbon panel convened for the report, said in a prepared statement.

The report was published online Tuesday by the American Journal of Preventive Medicine and will appear in the July print issue.

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FDA Approves Resumed Sales of Synthetic THC Drug

A synthetic version of the active ingredient in marijuana -- withdrawn from the U.S. market 17 years ago -- will be back on sale in two or three weeks as a prescription drug for vomiting and nausea caused by chemotherapy.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration gave approval Monday for the resumption of sales of Cesamet, said manufacturer Valeant Pharmaceuticals International of Costa Mesa, Calif. The company bought the drug, also called nabilone, from Eli Lilly and Co. in 2004, the Associated Press reported.

Valeant currently sells the drug in Canada. It was approved in the U.S. in 1985 but withdrawn in 1989 for commercial reasons, company president Wes Wheeler said. Since purchasing the drug from Eli Lilly, Valeant has revised the label and updated its manufacturing process, Wheeler said.

Cesamet is a synthetic version of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the active ingredient in marijuana. Synthetic THC acts on the brain in the same way as THC in marijuana. Cancer patients take the one-milligram Cesamet tablets twice daily before they have chemotherapy, and up to 48 hours after treatment, the AP reported.

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Tooth Fairy Paying More: Poll

The current average cost of plucking a baby tooth from under a child's pillow is now $2 in the United States. That's 22 cents more than in 2005, an increase of 12.4 percent, according to an annual Tooth Fairy poll released Tuesday by Securian Dental.

While the average is $2 a tooth, the Tooth Fairy's offerings ranged from a low of 25 cents to a high of $25 per tooth, the poll found.

"The Tooth Fairy is a rite of passage in many American households and presents a great opportunity for parents to talk with their children about practicing good dental habits," Richard Hastreiter, vice president of oral health analytics and dental director for Securian Dental, said in a prepared statement.

The poll, which sampled Securian's commercially insured clients, also found that 74 percent of parents said their children brush their teeth twice a day and that 91 percent of their children have a dental exam every six months.

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U.S. Teen Abuse of Rx Pain Killers Called 'Entrenched Behavior'

The abuse of prescription drugs by American teens has become "an entrenched behavior," says a report released Tuesday by the Partnership for a Drug-Free America.

The 2005 survey of more than 7,300 teens in grades 7 through 12 found that, for the third straight year, about 20 percent of teens have tried prescription drug painkillers such as Vicodin or OxyContin to get high. Nationwide, that works out to about 4.5 million teens, the Associated Press reported.

The survey also found that many teens feel it's safer to experiment with prescription drugs than illegal substances -- 40 percent of teens said prescription medicines were "much safer" than illegal drugs and 31 percent said there was "nothing wrong" with using prescription drugs "once in a while."

Twenty-nine percent of the teens said they believed prescription pain killers are not addictive, the AP reported.

The survey did find that teen smoking and drinking continued to decline.

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Nancy Reagan Backing Could Help Embryonic Stem Cell Bill

A letter from Nancy Reagan expressing her support for embryonic stem cell research may be helping fuel a potential showdown between the U.S. Senate and the White House.

Senate Republican leaders are making plans to vote this summer on a bill to restore federal funding of the research, the Associated Press reported. Nearly a year ago, the House passed the measure, with support from 50 Republicans.

The bill seeks to reverse restrictions on federal funding of embryonic stem cell research put in place in 2001 by President Bush. The restrictions allow research only on stem cells created before Aug. 9, 2001. Bush has vowed to veto any move to ease the restrictions.

In a letter to Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Tenn.), Reagan encouraged the Senate to ignore the veto threat and pass the bill to restore federal funding of embryonic stem cell research, the AP reported. Hatch is a sponsor of the bill.

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