Health Highlights: Dec. 9, 2009

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

Drug, Health Care Costs Increase for Americans 18 to 44

Between 1996 and 2006, the average cost of a prescription drug for patients ages 18 to 44 doubled, from $79 to $161, according to a U.S. government report released Wednesday.

Prescription drugs now account for a much larger share of health care costs for this age group (10 percent in 1996, 18 percent in 2006), even though the proportion who purchased prescription drugs decreased from 60 percent to 54 percent over that period, according to the latest News and Numbers from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.

    • Drug, Health Care Costs Increase for Americans 18 to 44
    • Senators Reach Deal on Health Bill Roadblock
    • Antipsychotic Drugs May Carry Weight Gain Warning: FDA
    • WHO Urges Stronger Action Against Smoking
    • FDA Lags on Recommended Drug Safety Changes: GAO
    • Medicare Covers HIV Screening
    • FDA Launches Widget for Pet Health

Among the other findings for Americans ages 18 to 44:

  • Total health cares expenses in 2006 were $231 billion, about $40 billion more than in 1996, after factoring in inflation.
  • A smaller proportion incurred health care expenses in 2006 (77 percent) than in 1996 (80.5 percent). However the average per person expense for people who had health expenses was much higher in 2006 ($2,703) than in 2006 ($2,177).
  • Major increases in per visit costs were noted for some areas, including visits to physicians offices ($119 to $180), hospital emergency rooms ($393 to $638) and dental care providers ($181 to $247).


Senators Reach Deal on Health Bill Roadblock

A group of Democratic senators has reached a "broad agreement" to resolve an impasse over a proposed government-run health insurance plan, Senate majority leader Harry Reid said Tuesday.

The dispute over a government-run plan has been seen as a major threat to passage of health care reform legislation, which has been on the Senate floor for nine days, The New York Times reported.

The tentative agreement would allow people ages 55 to 64 to "buy in" to Medicare, and a federal agency would negotiate with insurers to offer national health benefit plans similar to those offered to federal employees, The Times reported.

If private plans don't meet specified targets for making affordable coverage available to all Americans, the federal government would offer a new public insurance plan, said Senate Democratic aides.

The Obama administration welcomed the Senate announcement. "Senators are making great progress, and were pleased that theyre working together to find common ground, said White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer, The Times reported.


Antipsychotic Drugs May Carry Weight Gain Warning: FDA

Antipsychotic drugs may have to carry warnings about weight gain and diabetes, says the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The drugs' labels currently include information about weight gain and associated problems, but the FDA is considering requiring that information be included in the warnings section.

The agency has asked manufacturers of antipsychotic drugs for all the information they have about metabolic side effects, such as increases in blood glucose and blood cholesterol levels, Dow Jones Newswires reported.

The drugs that may be affected by the label change include Seroquel, Abilify, Zyprexa, Risperdal and Geodon. These drugs are used to treat conditions such as depression, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

Studies have suggested that the weight gain impact of antipsychotic drugs is stronger in children than in adults, Dow Jones reported.


WHO Urges Stronger Action Against Smoking

Each year, smoking kills at least 5 million people worldwide, and that death toll could rise if nations don't do more to fight smoking, says the World Health Organization.

"People need more than to be told that tobacco is bad for human health. They need their governments to implement the WHO Framework Convention," said Douglas Bettcher, director of WHO's Tobacco-Free Initiative, the Associated Press reported.

In a tobacco use and control report released Wednesday, the WHO noted that nearly 95 percent of people in the world aren't protected by laws that ban smoking. And less than 10 percent of people are covered by any of six anti-smoking strategies introduced last year by the WHO.

The strategies include protecting people from smoke, raising taxes on tobacco products and enforcing bans on tobacco advertising, the AP reported.


FDA Lags on Recommended Drug Safety Changes: GAO

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration hasn't followed through on changes suggested in 2006 to help improve drug safety, say Government Accountability Office investigators.

The recommendations were made after the pain drug Vioxx was pulled from the market because of links to heart attack and stroke, the Associated Press reported.

While the FDA has made some changes to drug safety oversight, most of the decision-making powers remain with agency scientists who approve new drugs, rather than those who track the side effects of drugs on the market, the GAO said.

"It is not yet clear if or when FDA's decision-making process will be substantially improved as a result of its efforts," said the GAO report obtained by the AP.


Medicare Covers HIV Screening

Effective immediately, Medicare will pay for screening of beneficiaries who are at increased risk for HIV infection, including pregnant women and those of any age who request the screening. HIV is the virus that causes AIDS.

"Today's decision marks an important milestone in the history of the Medicare program," Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said in a news release. "Beginning with expanding coverage for HIV screening, we can now work proactively as a program to help keep Medicare beneficiaries healthy and take a more active role in evaluating the evidence for preventive services."

"Every adult should know their HIV status," Dr. Howard K. Koh, HHS assistant secretary for health, said in the release. "This decision by Medicare should help promote screening and save lives."

"Medicare's coverage of HIV screening tests is an important step forward in protecting beneficiaries from the potentially devastating and life-threatening complications of HIV and Acquired Imunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS)," said Charlene Frizzera, acting administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicare Services.


FDA Launches Widget for Pet Health

A pet health and safety widget launched this week by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration includes information about a variety of topics, including how to report problems with pet food, buying pet drugs online and caring for your pet in a disaster.

The widget, a portable application that's embedded in a Web page, can be copied onto any other Web site or blog. Using the widget enables users to access content on the FDA's Web site without having to leave another site or Web page.

"The pet health and safety widget allows users to add a new dimension to their Web site by providing consumers with the latest news and information from the FDA's Center for Veterinary Medicine," Bernadette Dunham, director of the FDAs Center for Veterinary Medicine, said in a news release.

The pet health and safety widget is available at