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Health Highlights: Nov. 14, 2006

Americans Want Better Health Insurance: Survey FDA Panel to Review Ketek Antibiotic Online Tools Help U.S. Consumers Assess Nutrition Labels Number of Uninsured Hispanics in U.S. Increases 'Relatively' Little Tax Money Spent on Illegal Immigrants

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

Americans Want Better Health Insurance: Survey

Americans want more coverage and choice in their health insurance plans -- as long as they don't have to pick up the cost, according to a national survey published online Tuesday by the journal Health Affairs.

The survey also found that the uninsured are more likely than those with insurance to reject policies that require people to buy health insurance, and that 28 percent of Americans favor charging obese people higher insurance premiums.

The University of Chicago researchers who conducted the survey of 1,517 people said their findings suggest that Americans have difficulty making trade-offs to reform the health system and to make coverage more widely available. Instead, Americans want to put the onus on government and employers.

"Overall, Americans seem to be hoping for a better deal: there is little evidence of self-sacrifice," study co-author Daniel Gaylin said in a prepared statement. "They want employers and the government to do more to help pay for coverage but they still want the right to choose from different policies."

While mandatory health insurance may appeal to some state and federal policymakers, support for such policies varies depending on a person's situation, the survey found. More than 75 percent of respondents without health insurance opposed the idea of mandatory health plans.

This could be because these people feel coverage is too expensive or because they've made a decision to forego coverage and want to reserve the right to make that choice, the researchers said.

The survey also found that most of the respondents believe that people with unhealthy behaviors should have to pay more for health insurance. A majority said that smokers should have to pay more, while 28 percent said obese people should pay more. Californians were especially in favor (43 percent) of charging obese people higher health insurance premiums.

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FDA Panel to Review Ketek Antibiotic

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has scheduled a two-day review of the antibiotic Ketek (telithromycin), which has been linked to reports of serous liver problems, including several deaths.

The review, scheduled for Dec. 14-15, will be conducted by an outside panel of experts and could lead to a recommendation that the FDA add further warnings to the label of the antibiotic, the Associated Press reported.

Currently, the Ketek label carries a bold-type warning about reports of liver failure and severe injury in some patients who've taken the drug, which is used to treat respiratory tract infections, bronchitis, sinusitis and community-acquired pneumonia.

The drug was approved by the FDA in 2004. As of April 2006, there had been at least a dozen reports of acute liver failure in people treated with Ketek. Four of those patients died. The FDA is also aware of at least 23 other incidents where patients who took the antibiotic suffered serious liver injuries, the AP reported.

The U.S. Senate Finance Committee is investigating allegations of fraud involving clinical trials of Ketek and is looking into how the FDA handled Ketek-related safety issues.

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Online Tools Help U.S. Consumers Assess Nutrition Labels

The U.S. government has introduced two new learning tools to help Americans use the Nutrition Facts label so they can select healthy foods and control their weight.

The tools include an interactive Web-based learning program called Make Your Calories Count that's designed to help consumers understand and use the Nutrition Facts label to plan a healthy diet while managing calorie intake.

There's also a new downloadable Nutrition Facts Label brochure that tells consumers how they can use the Nutrition Facts label as they shop and plan meals.

"By making it easier for consumers to understand the Nutrition Facts label, the FDA is helping them make quick and informed food choices that contribute to lifelong healthy eating habits," Dr. Andrew C. von Eschenbach, acting FDA commissioner, said in a prepared statement.

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Number of Uninsured Hispanics in U.S. Increases

Since the early 1990s, there's been a rise in the number of uninsured Hispanic people in the United States, says a study released Tuesday by researchers at Columbia University and Montefiore Medical Center.

The study found a steady increase in the number of uninsured Hispanics between 1993 and 2004, while the number of non-Hispanic whites without health insurance remained about the same. The findings appear in the November issue of the journal Health Affairs.

Between 1993 and 2004, the number of uninsured non-citizen Hispanics increased by 3 million and the number of U.S.-born Hispanics without health insurance increased by 2 million, the study said.

The researchers analyzed federal government data on health insurance coverage for Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, Cubans, and Dominicans and found some "striking differences" in coverage trends among Hispanic sub-groups.

For example, the researchers concluded that welfare reform in the 1990s had a disproportionate effect on Puerto Ricans, whose rates of Medicaid coverage declined from 35 percent in 1993 to 21 percent in 1999. Among Mexicans, the rates decreased from 19 percent to 14 percent over that same period.

In 2004, one-third of all Mexicans and 25 percent of all Cubans and Dominicans living in the United States had no health insurance. Among immigrant Hispanics who weren't U.S. citizens, 57 percent did not have insurance.

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'Relatively' Little Tax Money Spent on Illegal Immigrants

Relatively little public money is spent on health care for illegal immigrants in the United States, says a RAND Corporation study in the November issue of the journal Health Affairs.

The study also found that, overall, immigrants to the United States use relatively few health services, primarily because they tend to be healthier than their U.S.-born counterparts.

The researchers estimated that about $1.1 billion of federal, state and local government money is spent each year on undocumented immigrants aged 18 to 64. That works out to an average of $11 in taxes for each U.S. household.

For comparison, the study authors noted that $88 billion in government money was spent on health care for all non-elderly adults in the United States in 2000. The researchers made their national estimates based on data collected in Los Angeles, which has the largest immigrant community in the country.

"Our findings show a relatively small amount of tax money is spent on health services provided to undocumented immigrants," James P. Smith, the RAND chair in Labor Market and Demographic Studies, said in a prepared statement.

"Costs will be much higher for educating children of undocumented immigrants, so that's where debate should center, not on these relatively small health-care costs," Smith said.

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