Headlines: February 24, 2010
by Meg Larkin
On Monday, President Obama unveiled his plan for health reform. The White House plan, available at whitehouse.gov, tracks closely with the Senate bill, but has softened some of the more controversial provisions. President Obama’s plan eliminates the Medicaid funding boost for Nebraska, opting instead to help all States pay to expand Medicaid. It also closes the doughnut hole in Medicare Part D and delays the imposition of the tax on high cost insurance plans. It is likely the Democrats will try to pass a health care bill through reconciliation, which cannot be filibustered, and therefore requires only a simple majority vote.
President Obama’s plan was released just in time for Thursday’s televised bipartisan meeting on health care. As the meeting approaches, neither side seems optimistic about the chances of the meeting changing minds or votes. The past few weeks have seen support for health reform weakening even among Democrats who voted for it when the House and the Senate passed their individual bills. The House bill passed by a slim margin of 220-215 and as many as 10 Representatives may have switched sides since the vote. Many House Democrats are upset because the Senate bill contains a tax on high cost insurance plans and does not contain the Stupak Amendment, which limits abortion funding. It is unlikely that a reconciliation process revolving around the White House’s proposal will garner any Republican votes.
In regulatory news, drug makers, safety advocates, researchers, and the FDA are debating the safety of the diabetes drug Avandia and whether it should be taken off the shelves. The drug has been the subject of an inquiry by Senators Max Baucus and Chuck Grassley because it has been linked to a high incidence of cardiac events. The Senators’ report criticizes GlaxoSmithKline, Avandia’s manufacturer for not warning patients about the drug’s health risks and intimidating independent doctors. The study linking Avandia to cardiac risk was done by Dr. Steven E. Nissen, a cardiologist at the Cleveland Clinic. Eleven days before Dr. Nissen’s study was going to be published in the New England Journal of Medicine, he was visited by a number of GlaxoSmithKline executives who urged him to try a different method for the study. Dr. Nissen secretly recorded the meeting, and has just released the recording to the New York Times.
A death last month at Boston’s Massachusetts General Hospital has led to an inquiry into alarms on medical monitors. The patient passed away when an alarm on a heart monitor was left off, failing to alert nurses to the fact that the patient was in crisis. The incident has led some to wonder why heart monitors include the option to disable the alarm. MGH has responded by temporarily assigning a nurse to each unit with the sole task of listening for alarms. According to the Boston Globe, he Joint Commission, which accredits hospitals, has seen a number of alarm related incidents. The Globe reported that Lucian Leape, an expert in hospital safety at the Harvard School of Public Health, wondered why these alarms can be turned off at all.
Recently, the FDA reversed its position on the chemical BPA, and is considering the possibility that it can cause health problems even at low levels. BPA, which is found in most food packaging, is a synthetic version of estrogen. In spite of early attempts, many food companies are having a hard time both ridding products of BPA and finding packaging alternatives. While the FDA originally said that BPA was safe, the Agency is now concerned that even low levels of the chemical could be contributing to a number of health problems including cancer. Even companies who have removed BPA from their cans are still finding trace amounts of it in the canned food and wondering where it could be coming from. The FDA has not yet ruled that BPA is unsafe or required food companies to change their packaging, but the chemical is under investigation.
Meg Larkin is a second year law student at Boston University. Please feel free to email her with any comments, questions, suggestions or concerns.