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Health Highlights: Sept. 28, 2007

Most Medicare Beneficiaries Can Get Lower Drug Plan Premiums in 2008 New York Smoking Ban Linked to Decline in Heart Attacks Breath Could Track Diabetics' Blood Sugar FDA Fails to Protect Clinical Trial Participants: Report New U.S. Law Boosts Prescription Drug Safety Wal-Mart Adds More Discount Generic Drugs

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

Most Medicare Beneficiaries Can Get Lower Drug Plan Premiums in 2008

In 2008, more than 90 percent of U.S. Medicare beneficiaries in a stand-alone Part D prescription drug plan will have access to at least one drug plan with a lower premium than they paid this year, the federal Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) said this week.

Beneficiaries in all states will be able to select at least one plan with premiums of less than $20 a month and from at least five plans with premiums of less than $25 a month. In 2008, the average monthly premium for the basic Medicare drug benefit is projected to be $25, according to HHS.

"The actual average premium paid by beneficiaries for standard Part D coverage in 2008 is expected to be nearly 40 percent lower than originally projected when the benefit was established in 2003. Moreover, our data show that the Medicare prescription drug benefit is saving seniors an average of $1,200 a year," HHS Secretary Mike Leavitt said in a prepared statement.

The open enrollment period for 2008 begins Nov. 15 and ends Dec. 31, 2007.


New York Smoking Ban Linked to Decline in Heart Attacks

A reduction in people's exposure to secondhand smoke after New York State banned indoor smoking in virtually all workplaces may have led to an eight percent decline in heart attacks, says a state Health Department report published in the American Journal of Public Health.

The Clean Indoor Air Act took effect in 2003. In 2004, hospitals in the state admitted 3,813 fewer patients for heart attacks than would have been expected without the smoking ban, the study said. There was no change in hospital admissions for stroke, the Associated Press reported.

Some previous studies have found that heart attack rates dropped 27 to 40 percent in areas that banned indoor smoking in public places.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, at least 22 states and the District of Columbia have smoke-free laws for all workplaces, including bars and restaurants, the AP reported. Exposure to secondhand smoke increases nonsmokers' risk of heart disease and lung cancer by up to 30 percent, the U.S. Surgeon General said last year.


Breath Could Track Diabetics' Blood Sugar Levels

It may be possible to develop a breath test that offers a simple way to check blood sugar levels in people with diabetes, says a University of California, Irvine study that found that people with type I diabetes exhale higher levels of methyl nitrates when they have high blood glucose levels.

Using a chemical analysis technique developed to test for air pollution, the researchers found that methyl nitrate levels were nearly 10 times higher than normal when children with type 1 diabetes had high blood sugar levels, BBC News reported.

It's believed that methyl nitrate is a byproduct of damage caused to body tissues when blood sugar levels are too high. The study appears in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"While no clinical breath test exists yet for diabetes, this study shows the possibility of non-invasive methods that can help the millions who have this chronic disease," said study author Dr. Pietro Galassetti, BBC News reported.


FDA Fails to Protect Clinical Trial Participants: Report

A U.S. federal investigator says the Food and Drug Administration does a poor job of protecting the millions of people who take part in clinical trials.

In a report to be released Friday, Daniel R. Levinson, inspector general of the Department of Health and Human Services, found that FDA officials didn't know how many clinical trials were being conducted and audited fewer than one percent of clinical testing sites, The New York Times reported.

In the few instances where FDA inspectors did check a site, they generally showed up long after the tests had been completed, Levinson noted.

The FDA has 200 inspectors to monitor about 350,000 testing sites. Even when inspectors identified serious problems in human clinical trials, top FDA officials downgraded the inspectors' findings 68 percent of the time, Levinson found.

In the rest of the cases, it was rare for the FDA to follow up with inspections to assess whether corrective actions ordered by the agency had been done, The Times reported.

"In many ways, rats and mice get greater protection as research subjects in the United States than do humans," Arthur L. Caplan, chairman of the department of medical ethics at the University of Pennsylvania, told the newspaper.


New U.S. Law Boosts Prescription Drug Safety

A U.S. Congress bill that improves the Food and Drug Administration's ability to oversee prescription drug safety was signed into law Thursday by President Bush.

The new law renews for five years programs to collect fees from drug and medical device makers -- which defrays the FDA's costs of reviewing products submitted for approval -- and gives the agency more powers to take action when there are problems with drugs already on the market, the Associated Press reported. For example, the FDA can order drug companies to do further studies on the safety of medicine and to put new label warnings on products. The agency now has the authority to fine companies who fail to comply with such orders.

Under the new Food and Drug Administration Amendments Act of 2007, companies must publicly release results of all clinical trials that show how well approved drugs performed, the AP reported.

"The law signals a new era of openness and accountability when it comes to prescription drug safety," Jim Guest, president of Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports, said in a prepared statement. He said the FDA "will begin to have the tools and resources to protect the public from unsafe medications. And the drug industry has been put on notice that it no longer can keep vital safety information from consumers."

The new law is "a vital step to both strengthen our nation's drug safety system" and to "preserve crucial incentives to help spur research," said a statement released by the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America.


Wal-Mart Adds More Discount Generic Drugs

Wal-Mart announced Thursday that it's adding seven new compounds to the list of generic drugs it sells for $4, including the attention deficit hyperactivity disorder drug methylphenidate and generic versions of the heart drug Coreg and the nail fungus drug Lamisil.

The company also announced that it will start selling generic versions of two popular birth control pills -- Ortho Cyclen and Ortho Tri-Cyclen -- and a fertility drug called clomiphene for $9 a month, The New York Times reported.

Wal-Mart's generic plan will now include 361 prescriptions representing various formulations of 157 medications, an increase of about 24 prescriptions.

Wal-Mart first introduced its discount generic drug plan just over a year ago. Many other retailers have kept in step, including Target, which said that it would match Wal-Mart's latest moves, The Times reported.

However, Walgreens and CVS -- two of the largest prescription drug retailers in the United States -- have not matched the discount prices and say Wal-Mart's moves haven't affected their business.


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