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Headlines: November 16, 2009

by Meg Larkin


            The debate over abortion funding that haunted the House health care reform bill is now dogging its Senate counterpart.  Key Democrat Ben Nelson of Nebraska said that if the bill doesn’t contain strong anti-abortion language, he will vote against the measure.  With 60 votes necessary to avoid a Republican filibuster, the Democrats and the two independents must all vote in favor of the final version of the health reform bill.  In the face of health reform legislation, drug makers are raising prices at the “fastest rate in years”.  The drug makers claim that the changes in price have nothing to do with the health reform legislation, and are instead necessary to ensure that drug makers have enough money for research and development, but some critics point to a similar price rise at the time of the introduction of the Medicare Part D drug benefit for seniors as evidence that the pharmaceutical industry is adjusting its prices to take advantage of the new legislation.

            An article in the LA Times focuses on the influence of the Catholic Church on the anti-abortion language in the House health care bill.  According to the newspaper, the Catholic Church got a seat at the table in the health care debate partially because of its longstanding support of the expansion of health care for low income Americans.  The Senate bill, while it does not yet contain tough anti-abortion language does feature several loopholes for the private health insurers.  A combination of factors allows insurers to potentially lure healthier people out of the “insurance exchange” and in to lower cost plans that are less comprehensive.  This would leave only the sicker and more expensive patients in the health care exchange established by the bill.  This is a stark difference from the House bill, which would allow private insurance to be sold only within the exchange.  A recent poll by the Robert Wood Johnson foundation and Stanford University found that support for the health care reform plans currently in play is tepid at best. While opponents and supporters of the changer are evenly matched in numbers, the opponents are much more passionate about the topic.  The poll also found that when pressed on specific issues, people who initially said they supported the reform backed away from that position. 

            In a different type of reform, a new program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.) is looking to change the way pharmaceuticals go to market based on the paradigm of the aerospace industry.  The new approach would involve more information sharing to suss-out and correct bottlenecks and set backs in the current drug development system.  The Food and Drug Administration has announced, in another area, that it will ban caffeinated alcoholic beverages unless their manufacturers can prove that they are safe.  Worries that the caffeine causes people to underestimate how intoxicated they are has led States Attorneys General to send a letter to the F.D.A. questioning the products’ safety.  In other food and drug news, a study released over the weekend call in to question the effectiveness of the blockbuster cholesterol drug Zetia as compared to a generic statin combined with  niacin.  The study, in the New England Journal of Medicine found that the statin/niacin combination is more effective at reducing buildup in the carotid artery than Zetia and sent waves through the cardiology community.

            On Friday, the FDA cautioned patients that vials of 5 different drugs from Cambridge – based biotech company Genzyme may be contaminated with bits of steel and rubber that could be harmful to patients.  So far, there are no reports of patients being harmed by the contamination, and it has affected less than 1% of the vials.  In other drug news, researchers have had a breakthrough in using gene therapy to increase muscle growth.  The researchers from the University of Pennsylvania found that gene therapy can be used to boost production of follistatin which blocks production of myostatin, the chemical that stops muscle growth naturally when animals reach maturity.

            The Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA) comes in to effect next week.  GINA prohibits insurers or employers from requesting genetic testing or information from employees or customers.  GINA is designed to remove barriers to genetic testing for people who were formerly afraid that information would be used to discriminate against them in the work place or the insurance market.  In other regulatory news, a disclaimer may be required at anti-abortion clinics revealing the ideological background of the provider.  The regulation is being considered in several counties around the country because of concerns that inaccurate and misleading information is being used to dissuade women from seeking abortions. 

            A new study by the Harvard School of Public Health has found that in the face of new government incentives for the adoption of electronic health records, there has been little to no difference in cost or quality of care since their wider adoption.  However, many argue that the electronic health records are simply not yet being used to their full potential at many of the providers that were studied. 

Meg Larkin is a second year law student at Boston University.  Please feel free to email her with any comments, questions or suggestions.


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