Health Highlights: March 14, 2004

Ashcroft Sent Home from Hospital Critics: U.S. War Against Obesity Under-funded Companies Vie to Create Cholesterol 'Superpill' Overweight Patients Force Hospitals to Upgrade Equipment Medicare Official Ordered to Hide Costs of Drug Bill Drugmakers Abandon Research Into Antibiotics

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

Ashcroft Sent Home from Hospital

U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft was released from George Washington University on Sunday, 10 days after he was admitted with a case of gallstone pancreatitis.

Ashcroft, 61, left the hospital about noon, according to a Justice Department statement. While he recovers at home, Deputy Attorney General James Comey will continue to run the Department, the statement said.

Ashcroft entered the hospital with severe abdominal pain. On March 9, doctors removed his gall bladder, which contained several gallstones that had doctors worried that his pancreatitis would return.

After the stones are removed and inflammation goes away, the pancreas usually returns to normal, according to the National Institutes of Health. Some people have more than one attack and recover completely after each attack.

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Critics: U.S. Fight Against Obesity Under-funded

The U.S. government declared war on obesity last week, releasing a study finding that the nation's girth was on its way to becoming the top preventable cause of death and unveiling a campaign to get Americans more active.

Critics see the plan, however, as having more bark than bite, the Chicago Tribune reports. That's because, they say, the campaign is grossly under-funded -- especially when compared to the advertisements of companies that promote less-than-healthy eating.

For instance, the Tribune notes, the campaign has messages urging Americans to get rid of their love handles by exercising more and eating better. But they are not commercials but public service announcements, and as such rely on the good will of broadcasters and advertisers; there's no guarantee that they will air.

"This administration talks a lot about obesity and physical inactivity," Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, told the Tribune. "But it's all talk and very little action. They're not putting money towards programs."

The paper says that it's hard to state exactly what the U.S. government spends on fighting obesity since the campaign is spread throughout many agencies. Still, critics say it comes nowhere near what private industry spends. "The education campaign, whatever it is, goes up against $34 billion in food industry advertising a year," Marion Nestle, a New York University nutritionist, told the paper. "One million dollars or $2 million isn't even the ad budget for Altoids mints."

Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson, who is spearheading the campaign, makes no apologies for asking for free media exposure. "It's tight times," he said.

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Companies Vie to Create Cholesterol 'Superpill'

Researchers are close to a breakthrough pill that would both raise "good" cholesterol, and hope to create a "superpill" that, at the same time, would also lower the "bad" cholesterol.

The Boston Globe reports that Pfizer, Inc., is in late-stage clinical trials on a medicine that would raise high-density lipoprotein (HDL), the "good" cholesterol that helps clear the arteries and rid the body of low-density lipoprotein (LDL), the "bad" cholesterol. The drug giant has spent $1 billion on the drug since the early 1990s, the Globe reports.

Pfizer makes Lipitor, the world's top-selling prescription drug, which lowers LDL. The company hopes to capitalize on its success and that of the HDL-raising medication and combine them into one "superpill," the Globe reports.

Pfizer isn't alone, though. The newspaper says that a Japanese company is also working on a drug that would raise HDL, and a Massachusetts firm is trying to develop a vaccine that would turn the trick.

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Overweight Patients Force Hospitals to Upgrade Equipment

Obesity is taking its toll on hospital equipment.

Handling overweight patients has become such a big problem in Maryland that hospitals can't keep up with the need for devices that can accommodate them, the Baltimore Sun reports.

"Our standard ... is to purchase equipment that can accommodate a 450-pound patient," Kathy Rogers, a spokeswoman for Western Maryland Health System, told the newspaper.

In the meantime, hospitals have to rent the equipment. "We typically rent the beds and bedside commodes," Darlene Fairfax, a spokeswoman for Civista Health, which operates a 110-bed hospital, told the Sun. "This past year our rental cost was $6,784."

The problem runs the gamut, according to the article. "We have had to purchase some new lifts to help people get out of beds," the Sun quotes Neil MacDonald, vice president of operations for Union Memorial, a 327-bed hospital in Baltimore, as saying. "For our operating rooms, we have purchased what are called hover mats, which are air-inflated mats that make it easy to transfer the heavier patient from the operating room table into their bed." In addition, he said, the hospital needs larger operating tables, steadier chairs with no arms, and even blood-pressure cuffs.

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Medicare Official Ordered to Hide Costs of Drug Bill

The nation's top Medicare analyst said that he was threatened with dismissal unless he hid the spiraling costs of the newly passed Medicare drug bill from members of Congress.

The Philadelphia Inquirer reports that the analyst, Richard Foster, chief actuary at the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, said that the costs were $100 billion more than what Congress would have been willing to accept.

Foster alleged that Thomas Scully, at the time the centers' administrator, wrote him a note ordering him to ignore requests from members of Congress who were drafting the legislation. According to the Inquirer account, Scully's note "was a direct order not to respond to certain requests and instead to provide the responses to him and warn about the consequences of insubordination."

The threatening letter came after several oral warnings. "Sometimes he would make a comment that 'I think I need another chief actuary,' or, 'If you want to work for the Ways and Means Committee, I can arrange it.' It was that sort of thing," the newspaper quotes Foster as saying.

The revelation prompted House and Senate leaders to call for an investigation. Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) wrote President Bush, demanding what costs were used to push the legislation forward. Congress passed the overhaul in November and Bush signed it in December.

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Drugmakers Abandon Research Into Antibiotics

Leading U.S. drugmakers, seeking greener pastures in other drugs, are abandoning research into antibiotics at a time when patients need new medications that fight antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

The Boston Globe reports that the drug industry, including such antibiotic pioneers as Eli Lilly and Co. and Wyeth, are putting antibiotics on the back burner in favor of newer drugs that promise bigger profits. Such drugs would fight heartburn, erectile dysfunction, depression, and other chronic illnesses and what experts call "lifestyle" complaints, the paper writes.

The financial incentive is lacking to produce new antibiotics, experts say, because patients take an antibiotic for only a few days at a time.

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