Health Highlights: May 15, 2004

Lawmakers Impatient on Canadian Drug Imports Long Wait for Seniors With Medicare Card Questions Is Volunteering Bad for Your Health? Lobbying Effort Begins in U.S. for OTC Statins Poll: 63 Percent Affected by Alcohol or Drug Addiction Pfizer Settles Charges Over Epilepsy Drug

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

Lawmakers Impatient on Canadian Drug Imports

Democratic lawmakers are urging a panel looking into whether drugs should be imported from Canada to speed the process up.

The Associated Press reports that Democratic governors and members of Congress, spurred on by election-year politics, want the task force's report to be completed before the fall. The task force held its final public meeting on Friday.

The recommendations aren't due until after the elections, but Surgeon General Richard Carmona, the panel's chairman, said the report will be turned in sooner.

But Democrats who support importing cheaper drugs from Canada say that's not soon enough, according to the AP account. "We urge you to tell your panel to make any recommendations immediately so that we can proceed," six Democratic governors wrote in a letter to President Bush this week.

The Bush administration and the pharmaceutical industry, citing safety issues, oppose the imports. Sen. John Kerry, the likely Democratic presidential candidate, is in favor of them.

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Long Wait for Seniors With Medicare Card Questions

A help line the U.S. government established last week to guide seniors with questions on the Medicare discount card is overwhelmed already, the Boston Globe reports.

Medicare administrator Mark McClellan said his agency is aware of the problem, in which people have to wait on the telephone as long as an hour before their questions are answered.

McClellan said that 1,600 operators are standing by to respond to calls to the number, 1-800-MEDICARE, up from 400 less than a year ago. However, he said he would hire "as many [operators] as it takes" to meet the demand, the Globe reported. "We're going to get this in balance as soon as possible."

The Medicare discount cards, which are part of last year's Medicare prescription benefit overhaul, became available earlier this month and take effect in June. The full drug benefits won't be available until 2006.

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Is Volunteering Bad for Your Health?

An Australian study suggests that if you do volunteer work, you may be helping others at the expense of your own health.

Researchers from Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia, asked over 500 people about involvement in voluntary groups, the BBC reports. They found that most of those who did such work linked it with a negative effect on their health.

The team found that over half of the people surveyed had been involved with a voluntary organization in the last year. Almost one in four had been involved in groups associated with sports or leisure, and a significant number had volunteered for work related, community, or social action groups.

Those who responded often spoke about the negative side of volunteer work, such as witnessing difficult situations, according to the BBC account.

"Involvement may not be beneficial for individual health, and that for the individuals involved there is some evidence that this involvement may in fact be detrimental for their own health," the researchers write in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.

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Lobbying Effort Begins in U.S. for OTC Statins

The push has begun to bring cholesterol-lowering drugs to the mass market in the United States.

The Associated Press reports that several American pharmaceutical firms who make the drugs known as statins have begun behind-the-scenes efforts to convince officials at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to follow the lead announced last week in the United Kingdom allowing the drugs to be sold over the counter.

Statins are already a top-selling drug category, and evidence that their ability to lower cholesterol in most people is unquestioned. According to the wire service, fewer than half the people in the United States who could benefit from taking statins do so. Cost is a factor, as well as access to a doctor. Most of the 18 million people at moderate risk -- defined as having a 10 percent to 20 percent chance of heart problems over the next decade -- are not on medication, the wire service says.

But there's another factor as well, the A.P. reports: revenue for the drug companies. The patents on some of the statins will be expiring within the next few years, and over-the-counter sales could keep them profitable.

"What we're proposing with over the counter is, let's treat that 10 to 20 percent [group]," Jerry B. Hansen, vice president of marketing for the Johnson & Johnson-Merck Consumer Pharmaceuticals Company, told the A.P. Merck-J&J is a joint venture seeking FDA approval for a low-dose, nonprescription version of Merck's Mevacor, the first statin drug.

Over-the-counter sales of stains will begin in the United Kingdom this summer. An FDA decision is months away, the wire service says.

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Poll: 63 Percent Affected by Alcohol or Drug Addiction

Some 63 percent of Americans surveyed are "greatly" or "somewhat" affected by alcohol or drug addiction, a new poll finds. And about three-quarters of them said the addiction involved a family member, according to the survey sponsored by the recovery-advocacy organization Faces and Voices of Recovery.

About two-thirds of those surveyed believed there's a stigma surrounding those in recovery, the organization said.

In addition to the social stigma, 75 percent mentioned a limited availability of health insurance for people seeking recovery, the group said. About the same number said they would be more likely to support a political candidate who proposed legislation that required insurers to cover addiction recovery.

"This poll strongly illustrates the barriers and roadblocks that people face as they strive to improve their lives and participate in community life," said Patricia Taylor, the group's campaign coordinator. But she emphasized the importance of recovery programs, stressing that "breaking the cycle of addiction is critical to a healthy society."

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Pfizer Settles Charges Over Epilepsy Drug

Pharmaceutical giant Pfizer has settled allegations that its recently acquired Warner-Lambert division illegally paid doctors to prescribe an epilepsy drug for ailments that the medication was not federally approved to treat, The New York Times reports.

The world's largest drugmaker agreed to pay $430 million to settle criminal and civil allegations over the medication Neurontin. Of that money, $26.64 million will go to a former company adviser who filed suit under a federal "whistleblower" law, the newspaper said.

The company allegedly paid doctors to use Neurontin in patients with bipolar disorder, sometimes referred to as manic depression. This, despite a study that found the medication was no better than a non-medicinal placebo in treating the disorder, the newspaper reported.

The company also illegally promoted the drug to treat Lou Gehrig's disease, attention deficit disorder, and restless leg syndrome, according to the Times.

The drug is among the best selling in the world, with 2003 sales of $2.7 billion. But nearly 90 percent of the drug's sales continue to be for ailments for which it is not approved, the newspaper reported.

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