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Health Highlights: Sept. 11, 2006

Medicare Premiums to Rise for Wealthier Cigarette Maker Denies Raising Nicotine Levels Sinus Antibiotic Causes Skin Reactions: Experts Hand Gel Said to Kill Bird Flu Virus Latest Vioxx Trial Gets Underway

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

Medicare Premiums to Rise for Wealthier

Medicare beneficiaries with bigger incomes will have to pay higher premiums next year, a departure from the traditional one-premium-fits-all approach, the New York Times reported Monday.

Up to 2 million Medicare beneficiaries with incomes of $80,000 or more will be affected, the newspaper said. For those earning $200,000 or more, the current $88.50 monthly premium is expected to quadruple by 2009.

The surcharge for wealthier beneficiaries was a provision in the 2003 law that established prescription drug coverage for Medicare participants. It affects people who participate in Part B, a voluntary program that covers services such as doctor visits, diagnostic tests, and outpatient hospital care, the Times reported.

The Bush administration is expected to announce the 2007 standard monthly premium later this month, the newspaper said. In July, administration officials estimated it would be $98.50, although the actual number will be computed by the U.S. Social Security Administration using 2005 tax returns.

While opponents of the surcharge say it could drive many people out of Medicare, supporters say it's needed to keep the financially ailing program viable, the Times said. The surcharge will be phased in from 2007 to 2009.

On another front, advocates for the disabled on Monday urged the federal overseers of Medicare to reverse the planned implementation of new rules that the advocates say would limit reimbursement for high-tech scooters and wheelchairs.

The new rules, to be launched Oct. 1, would restrict coverage for most Medicare beneficiaries to inexpensive, low-powered models that the advocates say wouldn't meet the needs of most patients with disabilities such as Parkinson's disease, multiple sclerosis, or post polio syndrome.

"These changes will impact the thousands of people who will need power wheelchairs and scooters," Andrew Imparato, president and CEO of the American Association of People with Disabilities, said in a statement. "As Baby Boomers grow older, there will be an increased need to meet their mobility needs, but Medicare won't be there for them."

The coalition issuing the statement also included the Clinician Task Force and the Independence Care System.

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Cigarette Maker Denies Raising Nicotine Levels

The largest U.S. cigarette maker is denying the conclusions of a Massachusetts government study that cites a steady increase in cigarettes' nicotine levels over the past six years, the Associated Press reported Monday.

Philip Morris USA, whose most famous brand is Marlboro, said nicotine levels may have fluctuated in cigarettes, but denies the purposeful, steady rise cited by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, the wire service reported.

"There are variations in the nicotine yield for different Marlboro packings, both up and down from year-to-year, but there is no general trend up or down," according to a company statement cited by the AP.

The state study released last month evaluated more than 100 brands over six years. The researchers concluded that regardless of brand, nicotine yields had risen in cigarettes by about 10 percent during the span.

Massachusetts is one of three states that requires cigarette makers to submit periodic reports of nicotine levels in their products, the wire service said. The state reportedly has the oldest data going back to 1997.

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Sinus Antibiotic Causes Skin Reactions: Experts

The powerful antibiotic Factive (gemifloxacin) may cause serious skin reactions and its effects should be studied further before the U.S. Food and Drug Administration considers its approval to treat acute sinus infections, FDA advisors said in documents released Monday.

The FDA approved Factive in 2003 to treat pneumonia and acute bronchitis, the Associated Press reported. Maker Oscient Pharmaceuticals Corp. has applied for expanded FDA approval to treat acute bacterial sinusitis.

But Factive, in both real-world use and clinical testing, appeared to have a greater risk of skin rashes than similar antibiotics, the AP reported.

On Tuesday, an expert panel advising the FDA will consider whether Factive's benefits outweigh its risks in treating sinus infections. The full agency usually follows the recommendations of its advisory panels in granting or denying approval.

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Hand Gel Said to Kill Bird Flu Virus

A new hand gel has proven effective in killing the deadly H5N1 bird flu virus that officials have long feared could trigger a global human pandemic, the gel's maker said Monday.

United Kingdom-based Dermasalve Sciences said its tests confirmed a 99.99 percent success rate in killing the H5N1 virus within 30 seconds of a single application, Dow Jones reported. Dermasalve said the gel's active ingredient remains potent for 30 minutes.

The product, developed in conjunction with Drug Delivery Solutions Limited, will be produced starting in October, Dow Jones said.

The European Commission, meanwhile, has approved two injected bird flu vaccines to immunize fowl, the Associated Press reported Monday.

The first vaccine, called Nobilis Influenza H5N2, was approved for use in chickens. The second, Poulvac FluFend H5N3 RG, was sanctioned for use in chickens and Peking ducks, the wire service said.

The EC said while there are no bird flu outbreaks in the region at the moment, the risk of disease is expected to rise once autumn migration begins, according to the AP.

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Latest Vioxx Trial Gets Underway

The latest lawsuit accusing drug maker Merck & Co. of ignoring the heart risks of the now-withdrawn painkiller Vioxx began Monday in a New Orleans federal courtroom.

What makes this case different, the Associated Press reported, is that the man suing the company began taking Vioxx after Merck's launch of a revised label that warned of an increased risk of heart attack.

Kentucky maintenance supervisor Robert Garry Smith, 56, said that despite the labeling, he didn't comprehend the drug's dangers until his February 2003 heart attack. "I was a perfectly healthy man until I took Vioxx and I had a heart attack," he said in a pretrial deposition.

The nine other people whose cases against Merck have already been heard in court all began taking Vioxx before April 2002, when the company revised the product's label to warn of potential heart risks, the wire service said.

Some 16,000 Vioxx lawsuits have been filed in state and federal courts across the United States, the AP said. Merck has so far won five cases and lost four.

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