Health Highlights: May 15, 2009

Medco Health Solutions, a pharmacy benefits managing company that handles drug benefits for some 60 million people, said the overall number of prescriptions was down. The reasons: fewer new drugs hit the market last year, some big-selling drugs such as Zyrtec -- an allergy medication -- became available without a prescription, and other drugs faced decreased use because of safety issues. The combination of those factors was responsible for the downturn in prescriptions, Medco said, the AP reported.

Total prescription drug spending grew 3.3 percent last year, Medco said, chiefly because of greater use of "specialty" drugs treating chronic or complex illnesses. Diabetes drugs, specialty treatments for cancer, as well as drugs for rheumatological disease, seizure disorders and antiviral drugs also increased. Average pricing of brand-name pharmaceuticals in 2008 rose more than 8 percent, the fastest increase in five years, AP said.

Medco projected that prescriptions would rise no more than 1 percent in 2009 and in 2010, the AP reported, but added that higher prices would boost total spending by 3 percent to 5 percent this year and 4 percent to 6 percent next year.

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