Health Highlights: Feb. 3, 2015

Health Highlights: Feb. 3, 2015

Health Highlights: Feb. 3, 2015

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

Give Medicare Power to Get Lower Drug Prices: Obama

President Barack Obama wants Medicare to muscle its way into getting lower prices for certain types of drugs.

In his $1.1 trillion health care budget, Obama asked Congress to give Medicare the power to negotiate on behalf of its beneficiaries for "specialty" drugs that have large patient co-payments. These medications include biologics (drugs derived from natural substances) and range from insulin to some of the newest cancer therapies, the Associated Press reported.

The budget proposal -- expected to be submitted as legislation -- is meant to control costs and improve patient care, according to Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell.

Insurance companies have been complaining about the high prices of some new drugs, such as the hepatitis C medication Sovaldi, which costs $1,000 a pill, the AP reported.

Obama's health care budget also calls for high-income Medicare beneficiaries to pay more, beginning in 2019. The proposed increases would include a home health co-payment, changes to the Part B deductible, and a premium surcharge for seniors who have a form of supplemental insurance believed to encourage overuse of Medicare services.

While such measures have the backing of many Republicans, there is strong opposition from AARP, the seniors' lobby group, the AP reported.

Another budget proposal would nearly double tobacco taxes in order to extend health insurance to low-income children. The federal tax on cigarettes would increased from about $1.01 per pack to about $1.95 a pack, and taxes on other tobacco products would also rise.

The higher tobacco taxes would take effect in 2016 and pay for the Children's Health Insurance Program through 2019. The program benefits about 8 million children and funding technically expires Sept. 30, the AP reported.

The budget also includes $80 million more for the HHS inspector general's office, which investigates health care fraud and abuse. Some of the money would be used to monitor the insurance markets created under the Affordable Care Act.

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Major Retailers Accused of Selling Fake Herbal Supplements

Four national retailers -- GNC, Target, Walgreens and Walmart -- are accused of selling fake and potentially harmful herbal supplements and must remove them from their shelves, the New York State attorney general's office has announced.

An investigation by state authorities found that a number of top-selling store brands of herbal supplements at the four major retailers did not contain any of the herbs listed on their labels, The New York Times reported.

Instead, they contained cheap fillers like powdered vegetables and houseplants, or ingredients that could pose a threat to people with allergies, officials said.

Here are some of the specific finding from the investigation, according to The Times report: Walmart's ginkgo biloba -- marketed as a memory booster -- contained little more than powdered radish, houseplants and wheat, even though it claimed to be wheat- and gluten free. Walgreen's popular store brand of ginseng pills contains only powdered garlic and rice. Three of six herbal products at Target -- St. John's wort, ginkgo biloba, and the purported sleep aid valerian root -- had no herbs and were made of powdered rice, beans, peas and wild carrots. At GNC, herbal pills contained unlisted fillers such as powdered legumes, a class of plants that includes peanuts and soybeans, which can trigger allergic reactions.

On Monday, the state attorney general sent cease-and-desist letters to the four retailers and told them to outline the procedures they use to verify the ingredients in their herbal supplements, The Times reported.

"Mislabeling, contamination and false advertising are illegal," State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said. "They also pose unacceptable risks to New York families -- especially those with allergies to hidden ingredients."

In response to the investigation, Walgreens said it would remove the products from its stores nationwide, Walmart said it would "take appropriate action," and GNC said it would cooperate "in all appropriate ways," but added that it stood behind the quality and purity of its store brand. Target did not respond to requests for comment, The Times reported.

Many health experts who have long warned about the quality and safety of dietary supplements welcomed the investigation. It's the first time that large retail and drugstore chains in the United States have been threatened with legal action for selling misleading herbal products, The Times reported.

"If this data is accurate, then it is an unbelievably devastating indictment of the industry," Dr. Pieter Cohen, an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School and an expert on supplement safety, said.

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Britain Moves Closer to Approving 'Three-Parent Baby' Procedure

Great Britain moved closer Tuesday to becoming the first nation in the world to allow a controversial procedure that uses DNA from three people in order to prevent children from inheriting mitochondrial DNA defects that can cause serious health problems.

The in-vitro procedure uses DNA from the two parents and a third person. Faulty mitochondrial DNA from the mother is replaced with healthy DNA from another woman, National Public Radio reported.

The procedure had been under review by the British government, and a health agency said last summer that it found no reason to believe it would be unsafe. However, there are concerns about ethics and about setting a new precedent for genetic manipulation.

The bill to legalize the procedure was approved Tuesday by the House of Commons. The bill must next be approved by the House of Lords before becoming law. If passed, the legislation would take effect on Oct. 29.

The Food and Drug Administration and other agencies in the United States are also assessing the procedure, NRP reported. Each year in the United States, 1,000 to 4,000 children are born with a mitochondrial disease, according to the United Mitochondrial Disease Foundation.

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