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Health Headlines - April 30

Posted Oct 23 2008 2:24pm
Fewer Companies Now Dominate U.S. Health Insurance Industry

Small businesses in the U.S. are increasingly being forced to choose between only a handful of companies when choosing coverage for their employees, federal investigators report. The trend is worrying legislators and consumer advocates concerned about shrinking competition and higher costs, the New York Times reported Sunday.

In a typical state, the largest insurer now controls 43 percent of the market for small group coverage, up from 33 percent in 2002, according to data collected by the Government Accountability Office (GAO). In nine states one carrier, Blue Cross and Blue Shield, controls more than half the market.

Doctors and small businesses are increasingly noting the decline in competition, and within two weeks the U.S. Senate is taking up legislation that would encourage small businesses to group together to help bargain with insurers to make coverage more affordable.

"Small businesses have extremely limited choices when seeking health insurance for employees," Senator Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine), who is also the chairwoman of the Committee on Small Business, told the Times. In her state, Blue Cross and Blue Shield now control 63 percent of the small group insurance market.

But industry representatives say the concentration of the market among fewer companies is not a threat to consumers. "There certainly have been some large insurance company mergers in the last few years," Karen M. Ignagni, president of the trade group America's Health Insurance Plans, told the Times. But she said that, "The data do not show a link between concentration of insurance markets and rising health care costs."

The U.S. Census Bureau now estimates that 45.8 million Americans are without health insurance, with more than half either self-employed or working for companies with 50 or fewer employees.

Former FDA Head Crawford Under Investigation

Former U.S. Food and Drug Administration commissioner Dr. Lester M. Crawford is under criminal investigation by a federal grand jury, accused of financial improprieties and false statements to Congress, his lawyer told the New York Times Friday.

The lawyer, Barbara Van Gelder, did not elaborate further on the accusations, the Times said. She told a federal magistrate Thursday that she would instruct Crawford to invoke his Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination if he was ordered to answer questions regarding actions during his tenure as FDA head. Crawford did not reply to requests for comment from the Times.

Crawford resigned as FDA commission in September after serving less than three months in the post after his Senate confirmation. At the time, he said it was simply time for someone else to lead the agency.

The following month, the Department of Health and Human Services released disclosure forms showing that either Crawford or his wife, Catherine, had sold shares in companies regulated by the agency when he was deputy commissioner and acting commissioner.

The criminal investigation against Crawford was made public as part of a lawsuit over the FDA's action on the emergency contraceptive Plan B. The drug became the center of a bitter controversy during Crawford's tenure as head of the agency, after the FDA repeatedly delayed approval of over-the-counter sales of the drug.

FDA OKs Drug for Rare Children's Disease

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Friday approved the first-ever treatment for a rare and deadly illness in newborns called Pompe disease, the New York Times reported.

Studies show the drug, Myozyme, successfully treats the inherited enzyme deficiency, which destroys muscles and is usually lethal before newborns reach one year of age. The drug was developed by Cambridge, Mass.-based biotech company Genzyme with help from federal government incentives aimed at developing medicines for rare, so-called orphan diseases.

Most of the 18 Pompe disease-affected infants given Myozyme in a 2003-2005 clinical trial remain alive today, although two did succumb to the disease and 7 require a ventilator to breathe.

Myozyme is extremely expensive -- about $200,000 to $300,000 per year -- but Genzyme has promised it will supply the drug free of cost to any child whose family is unable to pay for it via insurance or other means.

Pioneer in Genetics Gets Medicine's Top Prize

An 84-year-old biologist who was among the first to suggest that genetics, not just environment, plays a key role in animal and human behavior was awarded the United States' richest prize for medicine and biomedical research, the Associated Press reported on Friday.

Seymour Benzer, now of the California Institute of Technology, received the prestigious $500,000 Albany Medical Center Prize for work that began decades ago and laid the foundation for much of modern genetics research, including the Human Genome Project.

Benzer has said his interest in genetics and behavior began when he noticed that his second child behaved radically different than his first, soon after her birth. His subsequent work in flies revealed that the substitution of a single gene could bring about major changes in their behaviors.

Benzer told the AP that his work's impact lies in "opening up the whole idea that behavior can be dissected by manipulation, studying the genes."

Among medical awards, the Albany Medical Center Prize is second only to the $1.4 million Nobel Prize for Medicine in cash value.

Lawsuits Claim Illness from Stolen Body Parts

U.S. patients who unknowingly received tissues obtained from a company accused of illegally harvesting body parts are launching lawsuits claiming they contracted hepatitis C, HIV or syphilis from the transplants, the Associated Press reported Saturday.

"It pretty much turned my life upside down," one patient, Ned Jackson, 49, of Omaha, Neb., told the Associated Press. Jackson claims he contracted hepatitis B and C from lower back surgery involving the transplanted tissues.

The lawsuits are the latest chapter in a ghoulish saga involving now-closed Biomedical Tissue Services (BTS), a New Jersey company which is accused of failing to gain proper consent to take various tissues from cadavers. The tissues were then sent to hospitals where they were used in routine procedures involving an estimated 8,000 patients.

BTS' owners and three others accused in the case have pleaded not guilty to the charges laid against them.

According to the AP, so far about two dozen legal actions, most of them class-action lawsuits representing hundreds of tissue recipients, have been filed across the U.S.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration assert that the chance of any patient contracting a serious infection from the BTS tissues remains very low. But lawyers representing patients say that's not necessarily so.

"There has never been a widespread dissemination of recalled tissues. What's happened here presents a whole new scenario," Larry R. Cohan, a Philadelphia lawyer representing about 130 plaintiffs, told the AP.
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