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Health Highlights: Sept. 21, 2006

Wal-Mart to Test Price Cuts on Generic Drugs Report Urges Pay-for-Performance System for Medicare EPA Strengthens U.S. Air Standards on 'Soot' Human Stem Cells Found to Help Rats' Vision Company Recalls 'Natural' Male Performance Supplement

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

Wal-Mart to Test Price Cuts on Generic Drugs

Wal-Mart has announced a test program to sell generic versions of about 300 widely prescribed drugs for as low as $4 for a standard prescription to its workers and customers, The New York Times reported.

If implemented, the move by the nation's largest retailer, frequently criticized for its poor employee-health benefits, would mark the first time that the giant discounter has used its economic clout to lower health-care costs for customers they way it has on toys, clothing and groceries. On average, generic drugs cost between $10 and $30 for a 30-day prescription.

A Wal-Mart spokeswoman said the company would test the lower prices in 65 Tampa, Fla.-area stores and, depending on consumer response, would likely expand the program around the state and the country next year, the Times reported.

In the past year, the company has introduced several programs to improve workers' benefits, such as extending insurance coverage to the children of part-time workers and starting a benefit plan with monthly premiums as low as $11. Critics, nevertheless, complain that the insurance is out of reach for many of Wal-Mart's 1.3 million U.S. employees, forcing thousands of them to turn to state-sponsored programs or forgo health coverage altogether.

Several states have considered legislation that would force the chain to increase its spending on health care, according to the Times, but only one such bill, in Maryland, became law. The law has since been struck down by a judge, and its future is in doubt.

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Report Urges Pay-for-Performance System for Medicare

A report requested by Congress has urged that Medicare replace its current fee-for-service payment system and replace it with a new pay-for-performance system for reimbursing participating health-care providers.

"Medicare beneficiaries are not getting the highest possible quality of care because the program's payment system encourages volume rather than efficiency and quality," said committee chairman Steven A. Schroeder, Distinguished Professor of Health and Health Care at the University of California, San Francisco. "Pay for performance has demonstrated sufficient promise based on early experience that it should be pursued, albeit cautiously, and in a manner that allows for learning and adjustment as needed," he added.

Medicare currently provides more than $300 billion in benefits annually to about 42 million older and disabled Americans through a system that reimburses participating providers for services delivered. Reimbursement rates do not vary with the quality of the care that patients receive, the report noted. And the program does not generally reimburse for preventive services such as patient education or coordination of patients whose conditions involve multiple providers.

The committee deferred to Congress to determine how much to decrease Medicare base payments to create a pool of funds for bonus payments. However, it did recommend that the percentage be sufficient to create rewards large enough to motivate health-care providers' participation until other, more sustainable long-term strategies are explored.

The study was sponsored by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

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EPA Strengthens U.S. Air Standards on 'Soot'

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said Thursday that it was strengthening standards by almost 50 percent on particulate matter in the nation's air -- commonly known as "soot" -- calling the move its strongest in history to improve air quality for America's 300 million citizens.

Last updated in 1997, the standards increase short-term exposure rates of fine particles from 65 micrograms of particles per cubic meter to 35 micrograms of particles per cubic meter of air. Particle pollution exposure has been linked to health problems ranging from aggravated asthma to premature death in people with heart and lung disease. Revising the daily fine particle standard will yield additional estimated health benefits valued at between $9 billion to $75 billion a year, the EPA said.

EPA said it was also retaining the current annual standard for long-term exposure to fine particles at 15 micrograms per cubic meter. Based on recently updated benefits estimates, meeting this standard will result in benefits ranging from $20 billion to $160 billion a year, EPA added.

A critic of the new regulations, however, called the action "inadequate and demonstrably unhealthy."

"The science is clear," Dr. John E. Heffner, president of the American Thoracic Society, said in a prepared statement Thursday. "People develop respiratory disorders and those with existing lung, heart, and other chronic diseases die prematurely because they are exposed to these microscopic pollutants at levels well below those set by the EPA today."

The Thoracic Society and other medical associations supported both a tighter annual standard -- 12 micrograms per cubic meter -- and a more stringent 24-hour standard -- 25 micrograms per cubic meter.

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Human Stem Cells Found to Help Rats' Vision

Oregon Health and Science University scientists report that they have used human embryonic stem cells to improve vision in rats suffering from a disease similar to age-related macular degeneration.

A group led by Raymond Lund, a retinal cell expert, injected the human cells into the retina of a special breed of rat in which the retina degenerates shortly after birth. Subsequent tests found that the cells rescued the rats vision for three months after birth, The New York Times reported.

The injected human cells seemed to behave as retinal cells should, and the treated rats retained some six layers of rods and cones in their retinas, as much as half the normal value. While more research lies ahead before any clinical test of the cells in patients with macular degeneration could be tried, Dr. Neal Adams of the Wilmer Eye Institute in Baltimore said the development was important and "shows us some of the hope that regenerative medicine possesses," the Times reported.

The findings were published Wednesday in the journal Cloning and Stem Cells.

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Company Recalls 'Natural' Male Performance Supplement

Makers of a "natural" impotence drug sold over the Internet have recalled their product because it contains an active ingredient similar to the prescription impotence drug Viagara.

Nasutra LLC said Wednesday that it was withdrawing its Nasutra-brand dietary supplements marketed as treatments to enhance male sexual performance. U.S. Food and Food and Drug Administration tests showed that the supplements contained acetildenafil, which is similar to sildenafil, the active ingredient in Viagra, the impotence drug made by Pfizer Inc. and sold only by prescription in the United States, the Associated Press reported.

The FDA had warned consumers in July not to buy Nasutra and six other brands of similar supplements because they illegally contained ingredients similar to sildenafil or to vardenafil in Levitra, an impotence drug sold by GlaxoSmithKline and Schering-Plough. Acetildenafil can interact with ingredients in other prescription drugs and lower blood pressure to dangerous levels, the FDA said.

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