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Health Highlights: April 15, 2014

Health Highlights: April 15, 2014

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

Patients Paying Much More for Specialty Drugs: Report

Many Americans are paying less for prescription drugs, but some are having to deal with sharp rises in the cost of specialty medicines for rare or serious diseases such as cancer, a new report says.

On average, more than half of prescriptions cost patients less than $5 in out-of-pocket costs in 2013, and generic drugs were used to fill 86 percent of those prescriptions, according to the drug research firm IMS Institute for Healthcare Informatics.

It also found that 23 percent of prescriptions carried no out-of-pocket costs, which the authors said is likely due to free coverage of birth control drugs provided under the Affordable Care Act, The New York Times reported.

But expenses rose for people who require costlier drugs, with 2.3 percent of such prescriptions accounting for 30 percent of all out-of-pocket costs in 2013, according to the IMS paper.

Higher prices for specialty drugs helped push total prescription drug spending up by 3.2 percent in 2013, to $329.2 billion. The introduction of several new generic drugs in 2012 helped push overall drug spending down by 1 percent in 2012, The Times reported.

As a growing number of generic medicines become available, drug makers have increasingly focused on developing drugs for less common and more complex diseases. In 2013, 36 new drugs were introduced, including treatments for cancer, hepatitis C, diabetes and multiple sclerosis. Those new drugs also included 17 for diseases that affect fewer than 200,000 people in the United States.

"The new drugs coming to market are more specialized, and more tailored to smaller populations of patients, which tends to make them more expensive because fewer people are ultimately going to take them," Caroline Pearson, vice president at the health care consulting firm Avalere Health, told The Times.

In order to deal with these expensive drugs, many health plans are transferring some of the financial burden to patients, she said.

The IMS study also found that Americans' overall use of health care -- including prescription drugs, doctor visits and hospital admissions -- increased in 2013 for the first time in three years. This was mainly due to a recovering economy.

"Following several years of decline, 2013 was striking for the increased use by patients of all parts of the U.S. health care system," Murray Aitken, executive director of the IMS Institute, said in a statement, The Times reported.

The increase in the use of health care occurred before the full implementation of the Affordable Care Act, which is meant to provide health insurance to millions of new people.

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FDA OKs New Grass-Allergy Drug

For people with grass allergies who don't want allergy shots, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Monday approved an alternative: the grass pollen allergy drug Grastek.

This immunotherapy treatment -- the second approved by the FDA this month -- is a daily pill developed by Merck & Co. and ALK Abello of Denmark that dissolves under the tongue. Unlike medications that reduce allergy symptoms, this type of treatment reduces the immune system's sensitivity to allergens. Patients ages 5 to 65 can take the drug, which will be available in the United States later this month, according to a Merck news release.

Many patients with moderate to severe grass allergies experience sneezing, runny noses and itchy, watery eyes even while taking symptom-relieving medication, said Dr. David Bernstein, a professor in the division of immunology, allergy and rheumatology at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine. "These patients often have multiple sensitivities. Some of these patients may be candidates for immunotherapy, but decline allergy shots," he added in the news release.

With the approval of Grastek, which contains extracts of timothy grass, allergy specialists now have another approach, Bernstein said.

Because of reported side effects, members of an FDA advisory committee that recommended the drug's approval suggested further studies to assess its safety in children. The drug is not for use by people with asthma.

Stallergenes' immunotherapy treatment for five types of grass pollen won FDA approval earlier this month.

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E-Cig Makers Use Music Events to Hook Young People: Lawmakers

Free samples, candy-like flavors, and music festivals are among the ways that e-cigarette makers are trying to get young Americans hooked on the devices, according to a survey released Monday by congressional Democrats.

They said their findings should help push federal regulators to place restrictions on e-cigarettes, which are currently unregulated, Bloomberg News reported.

Over the last two years, six of the nine companies included in the survey sponsored or provided free samples at 348 events, and six of the companies offer candy-like flavors such as vanilla dreams and cherry crush.

"These are the same tactics that were used by major cigarette manufacturers before they were banned," said Representative Henry Waxman, a Democrat from California, Bloomberg reported. "Our findings demonstrate the FDA regulation of e-cigarettes is necessary to prevent manufacturers from targeting youth with aggressive marketing practices."

An FDA proposal to extend its tobacco oversight powers to e-cigarettes was submitted last fall to the White House's Office of Management and Budget and is still under review.

In a study published Monday in the journal Tobacco Control, the FDA said there is too little available information to determine if e-cigarettes are less dangerous than traditional cigarettes, Bloomberg reported.

 
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