Health Highlights: May 28, 2014

Plan to Sell Cialis Over the Counter Announced Insurers Trying to Reduce Cancer Care Costs: Report More Cases of Salmonella Linked to Foster Farms Chicken: CDC

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

Plan to Sell Cialis Over the Counter Announced

The maker of the erectile dysfunction drug Cialis on Wednesday announced plans to seek approval to sell the medication over the counter once its patents expire.

The move, which would not come to fruition until Cialis loses patent protection in the United States and Europe in 2017, would allow men to buy the drug without having to first visit a doctor for a prescription, the New York Times reported.

Under the proposal, the French pharmaceutical company Sanofi would buy the rights to seek approval to sell Cialis over the counter in the United States, Europe, Canada and Australia from drug maker Eli Lilly, according to the Times.

The move would give Cialis a competitive edge over similar drugs, such as Viagra. But it is not clear whether the idea would sit well with regulators in those countries. Pfizer abandoned a similar plan for Viagra in 2008 after the European Medicines Agency raised safety concerns, the Times reported.

Cialis should not be taken with some heart medications because it could cause an unsafe drop in blood pressure, the newspaper said.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration would need to decide what type of additional research would be required to sell Cialis without a prescription, a spokesperson told the newspaper.


Insurers Trying to Reduce Cancer Care Costs: Report

Insurers are trying to get cancer specialists to follow standardized treatment guidelines in an effort to control spending on cancer care.

Some experts say that variations in how doctors treat cancer can be wasteful and don't always benefit patients. This has led to efforts to develop treatment guidelines that are supposed to include the best and most efficient approaches. Doctors are then paid according to how well they comply with these guidelines, the Wall Street Journal reported.

While these moves by insurers could change the way doctors practice medicine, some cancer experts are concerned that standardized treatment could lead to problems as they increasingly move toward personalized, genetic-based treatments for patients.

In addition, there's a lack of widespread agreement about the precise protocols that should be used or how such programs should work, WSJ reported.

The latest and largest such effort will soon be implemented by WellPoint Inc., the second largest insurer in the United States. It will offer oncologists a $350-a-month payment for each patient who is on one of the company's recommended protocols.

The new program will be introduced in six states on July 1 and will be in effect throughout WellPoint's entire network by the middle of next year. The program will initially focus on breast, lung and colorectal cancer, and will then be expanded to include other types of cancer, WSJ reported.

Cancer treatment costs in the United States are more than $100 billion a year and rising steadily, according to the National Cancer Institute.

Last year, the United States spent more on cancer drugs -- $37 billion -- than any other category, and spending on cancer drugs has increased 19 percent in five years, according to the IMS Institute for Healthcare Informatics. Some newer cancer drugs can cost more than $100,000 for a single treatment, WSJ reported.

"Oncologist reimbursement at the moment is a broken system," Dr. Richard Schilsky, chief medical officer of the American Society of Clinical Oncology, told WSJ. The society has its own proposal for Medicare payment reform.

Schilsky said the WellPoint program includes "many of the important elements you'd like to see" in a standardized treatment system. But, he also noted that while this type of program is meant to "drive toward everyone getting the same treatment, precision medicine wants to drive toward everyone getting unique treatment."

Other insurers are also looking for ways to control costs. In 2010, UnitedHealth Group Inc. launched a project with five oncology practices that paid them a set amount of money upfront for each treatment regimen, rather than fees tied to prices of the drugs. The insurer plans to expand that project, but it will remain a pilot program, WSJ reported.

Cigna Corp. has starting changing payments for drugs that are similar in their uses but have major price differences. The objective is to ensure doctors earn about the same amount whether they use a cheaper or more expensive drug, the newspaper reported.


More Cases of Salmonella Linked to Foster Farms Chicken: CDC

Salmonella poisoning linked to Foster Farms chicken has been confirmed in 50 more people, bringing the total to 574 cases in 27 states since March 2013, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Tuesday.

Since the last agency update in April, there have been an average of eight new cases a week. While there appears to be a decline in the number of new cases reported each week, the outbreak isn't over, said Dr. Rob Tauxe, the CDC's director of foodborne, waterborne and environmental diseases, NBC News reported.

He added that the new cases appear to be linked to fresh, retail chicken and not chicken that had been kept in home freezers for months.

The CDC said that nearly 40 percent of people who became sick during the outbreak have been hospitalized, and 13 percent have developed life-threatening blood infections, which is triple the rate in typical salmonella outbreaks, NBC News reported.

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