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08-10-2012 | Article

The week in review, September 30-October 6

medwireNews: This week's news included Medicare playing a key role in the presidential election; the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) warning consumers about dodgy online pharmacies; drug companies paying the price for aggressive marketing; patients being wary of asking their clinicians to come clean about hand washing; Department of Human and Health Services (HHS) shelling out for state insurance exchanges; and a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) economist proposing a novel idea for financing cancer drug development.

Medicare is on the minds of the electorate

Politicians beware: more than one third of US citizens rank Medicare as "extremely important" to their vote on Election Day.

The finding comes from a Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) tracking poll for September, which shows that Medicare is the third most important issue on the minds of voters, behind only the economy and the federal budget deficit.

Not surprisingly, seniors are even more concerned than younger voters about the fate of Medicare, with 46% of the former group ranking the federal program as extremely important, behind only the economy, at 51%. Registered Democrats are more likely than Republicans to say that Medicare is a top priority; Republicans tend to weigh Medicare and the budget deficit roughly equally, the pollsters found.

In contrast, the Affordable Care Act (ACA), also known as "Obamacare" - a punching bag for conservative and libertarian politicians - ties for fourth place, along with defense spending and Medicaid.

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Click here to get ripped off

The FDA has launched a public awareness campaign intended to inform the general public about the potential risks to their health and pocketbooks from online pharmacies.

Although nearly 25% of people who buy products online have purchased prescription drugs from Internet pharmacies, fewer than 3% of online pharmacies meet federal and state licensing requirements, according to the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy.

The campaign is designed to make unsuspecting consumers aware of the potential pitfalls of ordering medications from online sites, including potential theft of unsecured or poorly protected private medical and financial information, and malicious software or computer viruses from sites masquerading as legitimate online retailers.

The FDA website also offers tips for recognizing a potential scam such as websites that sell prescription drugs but do not require a prescription, sell drugs at steep discounts, send users "spam" emails or mailings offering cheap drugs, and are not located or licensed in the USA.

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Drug companies overcharge, oversell, and pay for it

Pharmaceutical companies have paid out more than $ 10 billion dollars in fines to federal and state governments over the past 2 years, report Sammy Almashat and Sidney Wolfe, from Public Citizen's Health Research Group in Washington, DC.

From November 2010 through July 2012, drug makers shelled out a total of $ 10.2 billion in financial penalties for settlements reached between the companies and federal and state governments.

The fines were levied against the pharmaceutical companies as settlements for violations that included willful overcharging of government-funded healthcare programs, aggressive marketing of drugs for off-label indications, and other illegal activities.

In the first half of 2012 alone, the federal government imposed fines of $ 5.0 billion, and states imposed $ 1.6 billion in penalties - both record totals, the authors note.

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OK doc, let's see your hands

Parents are quick to ask their kids if they have washed their hands, but most patients do not think to ask their healthcare provider.

Kimberly-Clark, a leader in healthcare-associated infection (HAI) education and prevention, has announced results of a survey, in which 72% of respondents reported never asking healthcare providers if they have washed or sanitized their hands before beginning an exam or procedure.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, hand hygiene is one of the most important ways to prevent the spread of infections. Approximately 1.7 million hospital patients contract an HAI each year in the USA.

Conducted by ORC International on behalf of Kimberly-Clark, the survey examined the hand hygiene perceptions and behaviors of 1020 respondents. The key findings showed that very few (5%) patients ask doctors or hospital staff if they have washed or sanitized their hands before carrying out an exam or procedure.

Also, 40% of those who failed to ask about hand hygiene said it was because they assumed healthcare professionals routinely performed hand hygiene before treating any patient.

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HHS seeds state health insurance exchanges

Every state except for Alaska, and all but four US territories have asked for and been granted funds to set up affordable insurance exchanges, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has announced.

The ACA calls for the creation of exchanges as a "one-stop marketplace" where individual consumers and employees of small businesses can get access to high-quality, affordable, health insurance plans similar in design and benefits to those offered to members of Congress.

Starting in 2014, consumers will be able to go online or via telephone to their state's exchange to find side-by-side comparisons of competitive health insurance plans.

HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius recently announced that the agency has awarded a new round of Affordable Insurance Exchange Establishment Grants to Arkansas, Colorado, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Minnesota, and the District of Columbia.

Thus far, the agency has awarded grants to 49 states, the District of Columbia, and four territories. In addition, the agency has awarded $ 241 million to a multi-state consortium, led by the University of Massachusetts Medical School, which is developing information technology systems for exchanges that can be transferred and adapted for the needs of other state exchanges.

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Wall Street ways could fund cancer breakthroughs

Andrew Lo, a professor of finance at the MIT (Cambridge) and head of an investment firm, proposes establishing a "megafund" that would support as many as 150 early-stage cancer drug development projects at a time.

"We propose an alternative for funding biomedical innovation that addresses these issues through the use of 'financial engineering,' mathematical and statistical models for structuring and pricing various financial securities to achieve specific objectives," they write.

"Our approach involves two components: (i) creating large diversified portfolios - 'megafunds' on the order of $ 5-30 billion - of biomedical projects at all stages of development; and (ii) structuring the financing for these portfolios as combinations of equity and securitized debt so as to access much larger sources of investment capital."

Among the novel elements of this approach are the use of securities-backed debt as well as equity to provide funds for research, the creation of a single financial entity to focus on drug development, and the ability, unlike mutual funds, to support research apart from that being conducted in publicly traded companies, they write.

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By Neil Osterweil, medwireNews Reporter