Health Highlights: Feb. 23, 2008

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

Insurer Ordered to Pay Breast Cancer Patient $9 Million After Canceling Coverage

A California breast cancer patient whose insurance company stopped paying for her chemotherapy treatments before they were completed has been awarded $9 million.

The ruling judge termed the actions of the insurer, Health Net of California, "reprehensible," just as the Los Angeles city attorney announced another lawsuit against Health Net on charges it illegally canceled claims from about 1,600 patients, according to the Associated Press.

    • Insurer Ordered to Pay Breast Cancer Patient $9 Million After Canceling Coverage
    • Quitting Smoking More Difficult for Blacks, Hispanics: Study
    • Companies Agree to Halt Unapproved Health Claims About Products
    • More Countries Reporting Tamiflu-Resistant Flu Viruses
    • Magnetic Dart Boards Recalled
    • Large Amount of Recalled Beef Went to School Lunch Programs

The cancer patient, Patsy Bates, 52, had her chemotherapy payment benefits cut off by Health Net in 2004 after she had undergone only two treatments, the wire service reported. She was left owing her doctors almost $130,000. The insurance company had an incentive program for its reviewers, rewarding them for rejecting or eliminating benefit payments, the AP reported.

A Health Net spokesperson told the wire service it had such a program in 2003 and 2004, but that it had been suspended, pending a review of the company's procedures. "Obviously we regret the way that this has turned out, but we are intent on fixing the processes to maintain the public trust," spokesman David Olson told the AP.

"It's hard to imagine a policy more reprehensible than tying bonuses to encourage the recision of health insurance that helps keep the public well and alive," arbitration judge Sam Cianchetti wrote in his decision.


Quitting Smoking More Difficult for Blacks, Hispanics: Study

Quitting smoking is a difficult task for almost anyone. For Hispanics and blacks, it may be even harder to give up cigarettes.

Columbia University researchers have found that minority smokers had less success with various smoking cessation treatments than whites, and while the exact reason for this isn't known, the scientists were able to identify some common factors that may explain the difference.

According to a university news release, 559 smokers were used for the study -- 360 were white, 126 black and 73 Hispanic. The participants were given eight weeks of treatment using three widely accepted stop-smoking methods: buproprion (Zyban), the nicotine patch, and individual counseling.

During the last four weeks, about 60 percent of the white participants were able to stop smoking, compared to 41 percent of the Hispanic group and 38 percent of the blacks, the researchers found.

The scientists weren't able to determine an exact cause for the differences, according to study author, Lirio Covey, associate professor of clinical psychology at Columbia University Medical Center. But there were some common factors among study participants, she added.

"In order for successful smoking cessation to occur, treatment must be tailored to specific population groups based on better knowledge of these groups," Covey said in the news release.

"In African-Americans, quitting occurred less frequently among participants with lower body mass index and a household member who smoked," the university news release said. "For Hispanics, age was a significant predictor in that those who were older were more successful at quitting." The findings are published in the winter edition of the journal Ethnicity & Disease.


Companies Agree to Halt Unapproved Health Claims About Products

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced Friday that it has obtained a permanent injunction against Brownwood Acres Foods and Cherry Capital Services (doing business as Flavonoid Sciences) and two of their top executives, prohibiting them from making and distributing any products with label claims about curing, treating, mitigating or preventing disease.

The companies, which make various products including juice concentrates, soft fruit gel capsules, fruit bars, dried fruits, liquid glucosamine and salmon oil capsules, have a history of promoting unapproved health claims about their products, the FDA said in a prepared statement.

Under terms of a signed consent decree, the companies agreed to remove drug and unauthorized health claims from their labels, brochures and Web sites.

"The FDA will not tolerate unsubstantiated health claims that may mislead consumers. The FDA will pursue necessary legal action to make sure companies and their executives manufacture and distribute safe, truthfully labeled products to consumers," Margaret O'K. Glavin, the agency's associate commissioner for regulatory affairs, said.


More Countries Reporting Tamiflu-Resistant Flu Viruses

The number of countries with reported cases of Tamiflu-resistant H1N1 influenza viruses has increased to 20, the World Health Organization said Thursday in an update posted on its Web site. Many countries have stockpiled Tamiflu (oseltamivir) as a front-line defense in the event of a flu pandemic.

The list of countries reporting Tamiflu-resistant influenza now includes Japan, which uses more of the drug than any other nation, the Canadian Press reported.

Since January, resistant flu viruses have been detected in Australia, Hong Kong, Japan, Canada, the United States and 15 European countries. Rates of resistance vary from country to country. The overall resistance rate in Europe is about 19 percent but is much higher in some countries, such as in France (40 percent). The rate of resistance in Canada and the United States is about 8t percent.

Experts noted that H1N1 viruses that carry the genetic mutation that protects them against Tamiflu are still susceptible to the drugs zanamivir (Relenza), amantadine, and rimantadine, the CP reported.


Magnetic Dart Boards Recalled

Family Dollar of Charlotte, N.C., is recalling about 250,000 Fun 'n Safe magnetic dart boards because small magnets on the ends of the darts can detach and pose a hazard to young children, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission said Friday.

The small magnets can be swallowed or aspirated. If more than one magnet is swallowed, the magnets can attract each other and cause intestinal blockages or perforations, which can be fatal. There have been no reports of injuries.

The magnetic dart boards were sold at Family Dollar stores nationwide from January 2001 through January 2008 for about $5. The toys should be immediately taken away from children and returned to a Family Dollar store for a refund, the CPSC said.

For more information, contact Family Dollar at 800-547-0359.


Large Amount of Recalled Beef Went to School Lunch Programs

Of the 143 million pounds of California beef recalled last week, more than a third (about 50 million pounds) went to school lunch programs, U.S. Department of Agriculture officials said Thursday.

Of that 50 million pounds, about 20 million pounds have been eaten, 15 million pounds are on hold in storage facilities, and 15 million pounds are still being tracked down, Eric Steiner, deputy administrator of the USDA's Food and Nutrition Service's special nutrition programs, told the Associated Press.

USDA officials also said they couldn't provide the names of all the places that may have received the recalled beef produced by Chino-based Westland/Hallmark Meat Co. There have been no reports of illnesses.

"Sitting here today, I cannot tell you how many locations the product as gone to," said Dr. Kenneth Peterson, of the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service. "Our focus is identifying the locations and making sure the product is under control."

The beef recall, the largest in U.S. history, was issued after the release of videos showing workers using inhumane methods to force sick and crippled cows to slaughter.