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Health Highlights: Oct. 10, 2006

Seniors in Medicare 'Donut Hole' Should Shop for Savings: Report State Medicaid Spending Increases at Slower Rate New Male Contraceptive Attracts Interest Sunitinib Called Effective Against Gastrointestinal Tumors Statins Extend Patients' Lives by 2 Years: Study

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

Seniors in Medicare 'Donut Hole' Should Shop for Savings: Report

Most of the time, seniors on Medicare can get a better price for prescription drugs by shopping around rather than paying the "full-cost" under the Part D drug plan, according to a new Consumers Union report.

The finding, based on a study of seniors in Florida's Broward County, shows the need for the U.S. Congress to scrap a law that prohibits Medicare from using its massive purchasing power to negotiate cheaper drug prices for seniors, Consumers Union says.

The "full-cost" is what Medicare beneficiaries must pay once they have used $2,250 of their drug benefit under most standard plans, putting them in the so-called "donut hole" coverage gap. Once in that gap, beneficiaries must spend $2,850 of their own money for "full-cost" drugs before Medicare drug coverage kicks in again.

An estimated 3 million to 7 million Medicare beneficiaries could fall into the "donut hole" coverage gap this year.

"By simply shopping around, we found Florida seniors in the Medicare 'donut hole' coverage gap could usually get lower prices at retail most of the time than they could through their insurance plan. What's happening with Medicare 'donut hole' prices in this one Florida county is likely illustrative of the rest of the nation," Pete Sikora, outreach coordinator with Consumers Union, said in a prepared statement.

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State Medicaid Spending Increases at Slower Rate

The amount of money spent by states on Medicaid increased an average of 2.8 percent in the fiscal year 2006 -- the lowest increase in a decade, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation report released Tuesday.

In that same fiscal year, state revenues increased by an average of 3.7 percent, the Associated Press reported.

Kaiser officials said the figures may mean more services for Medicaid patients and increased reimbursement rates for healthcare providers.

The foundation said this is the first time since 1998 that revenue grew faster than Medicaid spending, the result of an improved economy and tighter cost controls put in place by states, the AP reported.

For the fiscal year ending June 30, 2006, the cost of Medicaid was more than $300 billion. The federal government covers about 60 percent of the overall costs.

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New Male Contraceptive Attracts Interest

Greater-than-anticipated public interest has prompted U.S. researchers to expand trials of a potentially reversible form of male contraceptive designed as an alternative to surgical vasectomy.

The Intra Vas Device (IVD) uses a tiny plug of silicone gel to block tubes (vas deferens) used by sperm to travel from the testicles to the penis. The IVD is inserted through a small hole made in the scrotum, The Times of London reported.

A pilot study of 30 men showed that that IVD was effective in preventing conception. Research in monkeys demonstrated that the IVD was reversible. More research is required to determine if it's reversible in humans.

The Shepherd Medical Company plans to begin testing its IVD next week. Originally, the researchers planned to include male volunteers from St. Paul, Minn. High levels of interest convinced them to expand the trials, The Times reported.

The male volunteers who receive the IVD will test it for two years.

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Sunitinib Called Effective Against Gastrointestinal Tumors

The drug sunitinib is an effective option for patients with advanced gastrointestinal stromal tumors (GISTs) who no longer respond to treatment with the drug imatinib, says an international study published online by The Lancet medical journal.

Currently, imatinib is used to treat GIST patients. However, in more than 50 percent of patients, the cancer develops resistance to the drug after about two years of treatment. At the moment, there is no recognized, effective treatment option for these patients.

This new study of 312 patients found that those who took sunitinib had a longer median time to tumor progression than those who took a placebo (27.3 weeks vs. 6.4 weeks) and a longer period of progression-free survival (24.1 weeks vs. 6 weeks for a placebo).

The most commonly reported side effects among patients taking sunitinib were fatigue, diarrhea, skin discoloration, and nausea.

"Although the exact molecular mechanisms might be multifactorial and require further study, our findings show that sunitinib is an effective option for patients with gastrointestinal stromal tumor after failure of imatinib," the study authors concluded.

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Statins Extend Patients' Lives by 2 Years: Study

Cholesterol-lowering statin drugs extend the life expectancy of elderly patients by an average of two years, according to a U.S. study of about 1.5 million patients.

During the study, about 350,000 of the patients received statins, while the remaining patients were not given the drugs. The study found that statins provided the most benefit to patients with the greatest risk of death, the Associated Press reported.

The findings are published in the October issue of the American Journal of Cardiology.

"We were surprised to find that statin users actually lived an average two years longer despite the patients having more health risk factors and being older than non-statin users," researcher Dr. J.L. Mehta, of the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, said in a prepared statement.

"We did not expect that statin therapy would have such a profound impact on patients' lives," Mehta said.

Typically, statins are prescribed for older patients with a history of coronary artery disease, hypertension, diabetes, and smoking.

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