HealthLawProf Blog

Editor: Katharine Van Tassel
Concordia University School of Law

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Walmart Generic Drugs

The New York Times reports that Walmart "will begin selling generic versions of widely prescribed drugs to its workers and customers at sharply reduced prices, a move that could force rival pharmacies to do the same."  Interesting move.  The Times states,

The giant discount chain, which has used its size to knock down the costs of toys, clothing and groceries, will sell 300 generic drugs for as low as $4 for a one-month supply. On average, generic drugs cost between $10 and $30 for a 30-day prescription.

Wal-Mart will test the lower prices at 65 stores in the Tampa, Fla., area and, depending on consumer response, is likely to expand the program next year.

The drugs covered by the program treat common conditions like allergies, cholesterol, high blood pressure and diabetes. In some cases, the company said, customers could save more than 60 percent over typical generic drug costs. The lower prices will be available to the insured and the uninsured.

The Florida experiment with lower generic drug prices appears to mark the first time that Wal-Mart has used its unrivaled influence in the American economy to lower the cost of health care for its customers. . . .

In the past year, Wal-Mart has introduced several programs to improve health benefits for its workers, like extending insurance coverage to the children of part-time workers and starting a benefit plan with monthly premiums as low as $11.

Still, critics complain that health insurance is out of reach for many of Wal-mart’s 1.3 million employees in the United States, forcing thousands of them to turn to state-sponsored programs or forgo health coverage altogether.

Several states even considered legislation that would force the chain to increase its spending on health care, but only one such bill, in Maryland, became law. The law has since been struck down by a judge, and its future is in doubt.

For Wal-Mart, the lower generic drug prices could blunt criticism of its health care coverage and prove a boon to business. Wal-Mart’s chief executive, H. Lee Scott Jr., has identified the chain’s pharmacy business as an area that needs improvement, and $4 generic drugs could turn the chain into a destination for those seeking the best prices on prescriptions.

Wal-Mart said it obtained the lower generic drug prices by squeezing costs out of its already efficient supply chain, rather than pressuring drug manufacturers to lower costs.

Ezra Klein has some further thoughts on Walmart's decision.

September 23, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Friday, September 22, 2006

Embryo Screening

Some rather alarming news, AOL News reports on a recent study that will be published in journal Fertility and Sterility showing that fertility clinics are receiving more requests to screen for sex selection.

Boy or girl? Almost half of U.S. fertility clinics that offer embryo screening say they allow couples to choose the sex of their child, the most extensive survey of the practice suggests.Sex selection without any medical reason to warrant it was performed in about 9 percent of all embryo screenings last year, the survey found. 

Another controversial procedure - helping parents conceive a child who could supply compatible cord blood to treat an older sibling with a grave illness - was offered by 23 percent of clinics, although only 1 percent of screenings were for that purpose in 2005. 

For the most part, couples are screening embryos for the right reasons - to avoid passing on dreadful diseases, said Dr. William Gibbons, who runs a fertility clinic in Baton Rouge, La., and is president of the Society for Assisted Reproductive Technology, which assisted with the survey.  "There are thousands of babies born now that we know are going to be free of lethal and/or devastating genetic diseases. That's a good thing," he said. 

However, the survey findings also confirm many ethicists' fears that Americans increasingly are seeking "designer babies" not just free of medical defects but also possessing certain desirable traits. 

Professor George Annas weighs in on the recent findings,

"That's a big problem if that's true," Boston University ethicist George Annas said of the sex selection finding. "This is not a risk-free technique," he said referring to in vitro fertilization, which can over-stimulate a woman's ovaries and bring the risk of multiple births. 

"I don't think a physician can justify doing that to a patient" for sex selection alone, Annas said. 

Survey results were published on the Internet Wednesday by the medical journal Fertility and Sterility and will appear in print later. 

The survey was led by Susanna Baruch, a lawyer at Johns Hopkins University's Genetics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., with the cooperation of the reproductive medicine society. It involved an online survey of 415 fertility clinics, of which 190 responded. 

September 22, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Routine HIV Testing

Yesterday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that HIV testing become a routine part of medical life for Americans from ages 13 to 64.  The CDC hopes that such testing will help prevent the spread of the disease and through early diagnosis increase the needed care for those who are unaware that they have the disease.  The AP reports,

"By identifying people earlier through a screening program, we'll allow them to access life-extending therapy, and also through prevention services, learn how to avoid transmitting HIV infection to others," said Dr. Timothy Mastro, acting director of the CDC's division of HIV/AIDS prevention.

Although some groups raised concerns, the announcement was mostly embraced by health policy experts, doctors and patient advocates. "I think it's an incredible advance. I think it's courageous on the part of the CDC," said A. David Paltiel, a health policy expert at the Yale University School of Medicine.  The recommendations aren't legally binding, but they influence what doctors do and what health insurance programs cover.

However, some doctors' groups predict the recommendations will be challenging to implement, requiring more money and time for testing, counseling and revising consent procedures. Some physicians also question whether there is enough evidence to expand testing beyond high-risk groups, said Dr. Larry Fields, the president of the American Academy of Family Physicians. "Are doctors going to do it? Probably not," Fields said.  But the recommendations were endorsed by the American Medical Association, which urged doctors to comply. . . . .

Under the new guidelines, patients would be tested for the AIDS virus as part of the standard tests they get when they go for urgent or emergency care, or even during a routine physical. The CDC recommends everyone get tested at least once, but annual testing is urged only for people at high risk.

Consent for the test would be covered in a clinic or hospital's standard care consent form. Patients would be allowed to decline the testing. The CDC's guidelines say no one should be tested without their knowledge.

An American Civil Liberties Union official protested the CDC's idea of dealing with HIV on standard consent forms, and the agency's de-emphasis of pre-test counseling. "By eliminating these safeguards, what they're calling 'routine testing' will in practice be mandatory testing," said Rose Saxe, a staff attorney with the ACLU AIDS Project.  Doctors should tell patients anonymous testing is also available, if they'd rather choose where they want to get HIV testing, Saxe said.

The cost of the new policy is not clear. A standard HIV test can cost between $2.50 and $8, public health experts say.

September 22, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Thursday, September 21, 2006

FDA Commissioner Nomination Still Holding

The New York Times reports that the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee approved Andrew von Eschenbach to head the Food and Drug Administration.  His approval had been delayed due to the politics surrounding the delayed approval for Plan B.  The Times reports that there are new issues that may further stall his confirmation vote before the full Senate.  The new delay comes from the Republican side this time.  The newspaper reports,

Senator David Vitter, Republican of Louisiana, has promised to hold up Dr. von Eschenbach’s nomination until the Bush administration agrees to legalize imports of cheaper drugs from abroad. And Senator Jim DeMint, Republican of South Carolina, said he would not allow the nomination to proceed until Dr. von Eschenbach took action to suspend sales of RU-486, the abortion drug. The F.D.A is not expected to take any such action soon.

The article quotes the Senator Senate Committee chairman as noting that the FDA commissioner's confirmation is as difficult as that of a Supreme Court justice.  It does appear to be that way.

September 21, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Stem Cell Politics

The New England Journal of Medicine has a great article (available free) on the politics of stem cell research.  It provides a good overview of some of the potential benefits of stem cell research and some of the unknowns about that research that still exist.  The article concludes,

On July 19, Bush missed an opportunity to show support for research on cells that do have the potential to differentiate into many different kinds of tissues. His veto thwarted new prospects for advancing embryonic stem-cell research and will result in a terrible waste: tens of thousands of fertilized eggs will be destroyed without a single one being permitted to contribute to our knowledge of cell differentiation. Fortunately, research on embryonic stem cells will proceed in a number of excellent scientific centers in this country, without federal funding and, one might argue, at a pace unfettered by the federal bureaucracy. But the lack of federal support and the political climate do hinder stem-cell research in the United States. A new center in Singapore, for example, has recently attracted gifted American investigators who are fed up with political restrictions on their research. Other countries — such as China, Sweden, and the United Kingdom — are also entering the field. 

We really don't know what will ultimately come out of research on embryonic stem cells. It is important to play down promises to the public that the work will produce anything of clinical value in the foreseeable future. We simply don't know how an embryonic stem cell will behave in a human, and we don't know whether human marrow contains a pluripotent stem cell that can transdifferentiate. Equally important, we don't yet know whether research on embryonic stem cells will teach us how to revise the differentiation program of a tissue-specific stem cell, thereby circumventing the need for embryonic cells. Research on stem cells will encounter many twists and turns, but it is an endeavor that is eminently worth pursuing. The delay of medical advances by theological disputes is not in the best interests of the sick and disabled. 

Thanks to Jim Tomaszewski for the heads-up on this article!

September 21, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Health Benefits of Sharing a Bed

Yesterday's New York Times Science section had an interesting article on a new book by Paul C. Rosenblatt that discusses sleeping together.  The book is entitled,“Two in a Bed: The Social System of Couple Bed Sharing,”   Dr. Rosenblatt interviewed 42 couples for his book, married and unmarried, homosexual and heterosexual couples.  One of the interesting "health" findings is that some couples claim that sharing a bed may have saved their lives.  The Times states,

“It surprised me how many people thought they were alive today because they shared a bed,” Dr. Rosenblatt said.

For example, he said a woman’s seizure was noticed immediately by her husband with whom she spooned every night. Similar stories came from couples where one partner had a heart attack, stroke or went into diabetic shock.

The article is fairly amusing and the book sounds quite interesting.  I wonder if it will help me with my petit problem of stealing the covers . . . .

September 20, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Medicare Meets Mephistopheles

Erza Klein has a complementary review of Professor David Hyman's new book, "Medicare Meets Mephistopheles."  He states,

Hyman is an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute, and so his book, as you may have considered but not believed, literally takes as its conceit that Medicare is a demonic program sent to encourage all manner of deadly sins and, eventually, bring down the American republic. Spending so much time in the blogosphere, which vastly over-represents libertarians, it's occasionally easy to forget that libertarianism is a distinctly fringe ideology. Seeing them (jokingly) suggest Satanic origins for the massively popular and successful (if deeply in need of reform) system of health insurance for the elderly helpfully reminds.

That said, the book is actually quite good. I'd happily recommend it to anyone with a basic grasp on health care and a desire to learn a bit more about Medicare. Hyman is a felicitous and fun writer, and he conveys an impressive amount of history and data in as accessible and absorbable a manner as one could hope. I know how tricky it is to make health care a quick and gripping read, and I'm all for anyone able to enrich the debate and educate readers by doing so.

The rest of the review and the comments are also quite good.

September 20, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Good News about Inefficient Health Care

Kevin Drum of the Washington Monthly discusses this week's cover story in Business Week concerning the economy and the role of health care.  He quotes,

The very real problems with the health-care system mask a simple fact: Without it the nation's labor market would be in a deep coma.  Since 2001, 1.7 million new jobs have been added in the health-care sector, which includes related industries such as pharmaceuticals and health insurance. Meanwhile, the number of private-sector jobs outside of health care is no higher than it was five years ago.

....Both sides can agree that more spending on information technology could reduce the need for so many health-care workers. It's a truism in economics that investment boosts productivity, and the U.S. lags behind other countries in this area. One reason: "Every other country has the payers paying for IT," says Johns Hopkins' Gerard Anderson, an expert on the economics of health care. "In the U.S. we're asking the providers to pay for IT" — and they're not the ones who benefit.

He then provides some interesting insight into the reasons for this inefficiency and some of the problems it causes:

The fact that this inefficiency means we employs a lot more people than we would if we had a rationally run system is hardly a great rallying cry for the status quo. A national healthcare system, besides being tremendously beneficial for the actual consumers of healthcare, would also align the market incentives more reasonably and reduce costs considerably. I'm willing to take the risk that we'll somehow figure out what to do with all the jobs and money we save along the way.

September 19, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Monday, September 18, 2006

Bioterror Protection Setbacks

With everything going so well on the health front, i.e., the increased number of uninsured, the e-coli outbreak, the re-defining of torture, and more, who would have thought that our efforts to improve our stockpiles of bioterror drugs would be problematic. . . .  The New York Times reports today that there are been some difficulties, political ones, which have caused delays and well, things aren't progressing like people had hoped.  The Times states,

The last of the anthrax-laced letters was still making its way through the mail in late 2001 when top Bush administration officials reached an obvious conclusion: the nation desperately needed to expand its medical stockpile to prepare for another biological attack.

The result was Project BioShield, a $5.6 billion effort to exploit the country’s top medical and scientific brains and fill an emergency medical cabinet with new drugs and vaccines for a host of threats. “We will rally the great promise of American science and innovation to confront the greatest danger of our time,” President Bush said in starting the program.

But the project, critics say, has largely failed to deliver.

So far, only a small fraction of the anticipated remedies are available. Drug companies have waited months, if not years, for government agencies to decide which treatments they want and in what quantities. Unable to attract large pharmaceutical corporations to join the endeavor, the government is instead relying on small start-up companies that often have no proven track record.

The troubles have been most acute with the highest priority of all: a $900 million push to add a new anthrax vaccine to the stockpile. What had begun as an effort to test and manufacture a safer, faster-acting vaccine has turned into an ugly battle between two biotech businesses.

Each has hired Washington lobbyists to attack its rival’s product and try to win over lawmakers and administration officials. Delivery of the new vaccine is far behind schedule, and a dispute between the Department of Health and Human Services and VaxGen, the company chosen to make the vaccine, could even end the deal. The only doses that have been added to the stockpile are of a decades-old vaccine that has generated complaints of serious side effects. . . .

“The inept implementation of the program has led the best brains and the best scientists to give up, to look elsewhere or devote their resources to medical initiatives that are not focused on biodefense,” said Michael Greenberger, director of the Center for Health and Homeland Security at the University of Maryland. . . .

From the start, officials in Washington knew that Project BioShield would be a risky venture — for the government, the companies involved and even ordinary Americans, who might be asked to take relatively untested treatments in an emergency.

Officials hoped $5.6 billion in federal money would entice companies to develop new drugs and vaccines for anthrax, smallpox, botulism, Ebola and other deadly diseases.

Because of the perceived urgency of the threat, the project suspends some traditional standards. It allows new vaccines or drugs to be used in emergencies before completing the lengthy Food and Drug Administration approval process. Full testing on humans is also not required because it is too dangerous, even though that means no one will know with certainty whether the vaccines will work until used in a crisis.

For their part, the companies have to take all the risks of developing and manufacturing new products; they get paid only upon delivery.

The article ends on a slightly upbeat note - people have recognized that there is a problem and will be meeting to solve some of the issues raised in the article so there may be some hope for the future.

September 18, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Letters of Recommendation

Professor Tung Yin at Prawfsblawg has an excellent post for students on how to receive a great letter of recommendation for a judicial clerkship.  I must admit that my hand is still a bit sore after all the letter signing that occurred earlier this semester.  I find it helpful when the student will spend some brief time filling me in on some of their life history before I write the letter.  Even getting to know a student in a seminar doesn't always let you see the full person - why did they go to law school, what are their goals, do they have children that they are taking care of while attending law school, what outside activities or community events do they enjoy etc.   

September 18, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Results from DNA Tests: Who are you ancestors?

Pandagon had an interesting post recently about receiving the results from DNA analysis to trace an individual's ancestry to different regions of the world.   The testing is expensive and has provided some people with surprises. 

September 17, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)