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Health Highlights: Oct. 5, 2003

Medicare Drug Bill Appears Stalled Canadian Drug Exporter Readies FDA Response Breast Cancer Being Diagnosed Sooner Salmonella Concerns Prompt Beef Jerky Recall

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

Medicare Drug Bill Appears Stalled

With only two weeks left to the Republican goal of offering up a compromised Medicare prescription drug bill, lawmakers are no closer to a final deal than when they began negotiating three months ago, Newsday reports.

Lawmakers involved say they are just beginning to tackle the more controversial and contentious issues, even as the Oct. 17 deadline looms and pressure mounts for Congress to act on Medicare drug coverage, which is expected to be a key campaign issue.

The House and the Senate bills, passed in June, both set aside $400 billion over 10 years and add the drug benefit to Medicare, the federal health insurance plan for the elderly and disabled. The bills boost payments to some Medicare health care providers and offer government help to seniors with high drug costs. Both allow private plans to offer drug coverage to Medicare recipients and offer subsidies to low-income seniors.

But the differences are stark: The House Republican measure relies more on the private sector to provide the drug benefit and eventually compete with Medicare. It also requires wealthier seniors to pay more out-of-pocket expenses before government aid kicks in. The Senate bill aims to preserve traditional Medicare and ensure there are several health plans available for seniors in more rural areas.

Last week, a select group of lawmakers met almost daily trying to iron out differences. Late last month, President Bush, who has promised to get a drug bill passed, met lawmakers at the White House and urged them to work out a compromise. And in recent weeks, top administration health officials, including Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson, have joined in the talks.

"They're kind of stuck," said Leighton Ku, a senior health policy fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a Washington think tank. "The bottom line remains -- they have moved very slowly," he told Newsday.

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Canadian Drug Exporter Readies FDA Response

A Canadian exporter says it is willing to change its prescription medicine delivery procedures and may stop selling some prescribed medications -- including diabetes drugs -- in the United States but vows not to stop serving the U.S. market.

CanaRX President G. Anthony Howard told the Associated Press that the company plans to respond Tuesday to a cease-and-desist letter from the FDA. He said he may curtail the use of his Detroit post office box and stop personally transporting drugs that need refrigeration -- such as insulin -- across the border from his Windsor, Ontario, offices.

"We are going to do as much as we can, but we're not going to stop shipping medications," he said.

FDA Associate Commissioner William Hubbard said that he'll have to see CanaRX's proposed changes before making a decision, but that rudimentary shifts in drug delivery may not be enough to correct the legal problems.

"I don't know as CanaRX can fix the problem because they've got sort of a fundamental violation here, which is bringing in unapproved drugs," said Hubbard.

The confrontation is taking place as Congress debates measures that would legalize the importation of prescription drugs from Canada as part of a broad Medicare bill.

In July, the city of Springfield, Mass., became the first to offer a voluntary program to employees and retirees that would allow the city to save as much as $9 million by buying dramatically cheaper prescription drugs from Canada. The plan is similar to mail-order pharmacies, but the orders are filled by CanaRX. At least 1,100 people signed up for the option.

About three weeks ago, the FDA told Springfield Mayor Mike Albano that it was sending a warning letter to CanaRX. The Justice Department last month filed suit against Rx Depot, another company involved in exporting Canadian drugs.

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Breast Cancer Being Diagnosed Sooner

The death rate from breast cancer continues to decline, as more than 90 percent of cases are now being diagnosed in their early stages when the chances for survival are much higher, the American Cancer Society (ACS) reports.

The society's bi-annual breast cancer report offers a mixed bag of news. On the downside, it finds that African-American women are now 30 percent more likely to die of breast cancer than white women. While the reasons aren't fully understood, the society cites socio-economic factors, including white women having more access to diagnostic testing like mammography, and better therapies.

"[White women's] breast cancers, therefore, are diagnosed at an earlier stage and treated more aggressively," ACS vice president Dr. Michael Thun says in a statement.

Breast cancer remains the most frequently diagnosed cancer in American women, with an estimated 211,300 cases expected in 2003. It accounts for nearly one in three cases of all types of cancer among women, the ACS says, and is the second-leading cause of cancer death among women, behind lung cancer.

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Salmonella Concerns Prompt Beef Jerky Recall

Chavez/Old Santa Fe Trail, an Albuquerque, N.M., firm, is recalling 22,000 pounds of beef jerky that may be contaminated with salmonella, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service says.

The products subject to recall are:

  • "General Store, All Natural Route 66 Beef Jerky" in peppered, green chili, red chili, and regular flavors.

  • "A Taste of New Mexico, Old Santa Fe Trail Beef Jerky, No Preservatives" in green chili, red chili, peppered, and original flavors.

All products were produced between May 1 and Sept. 26, and bear the establishment number "EST. 13343" inside the USDA mark of inspection. They were distributed to retail stores and via mail order nationwide. In addition, consumers may have purchased affected products from a vendor at the New Mexico State Fair.

Salmonella infections can be life-threatening, especially for infants, the frail or elderly, and people with weakened immune systems. Symptoms can include diarrhea, abdominal cramps, fever, chills, headache, nausea and vomiting that can last up to seven days.

For more information, contact Angela Postlethwait, company assistant manager, at 505-255-7950.

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