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Top health care stories of 2009

Swine flu, health reform, and debates over breast and prostate screening tests are among the top 10 health stories of 2009.

J0400437_188035_7 Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy organization, offers this list of the top health care events last year:
  • Tom Daschle: Daschle was slated to be the White House’s chief health care adviser and secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, but revelations that he hadn’t paid $128,000 in back taxes forced him to withdraw.
  • Sanjay Gupta, M.D.: Two months after rumors that Gupta would be named surgeon general, the CNN-TV doctor removed his name from consideration.
  • Contaminated peanut products: More than 700 people were sickened and nine may have died from a Salmonella outbreak involving peanut products produced by the Peanut Corp of America.
  • Government Accountability Office report on the FDA: The GAO issued a report strongly criticizing the Food and Drug Administration for failing to protect the public by its lax or minimal testing of medical devices.
  • Nutrition information on menus: A federal appeals court upheld the requirement that fast-food restaurants in New York include the calorie count for items on its menus.
  • Kathleen Sebelius. Sebelius, whose health-related background includes being insurance commissioner and governor in Kansas, was named secretary of Health and Human Services.
  • Health care reform: After an absence of debate during the Bush years, health care burst onto the scene with clashes between those who want a different health care delivery system and those who want more money for the ineffective-ridden, fragmented, costly current system.
  • Wyeth vs. Levine: The Supreme Court ruled in favor of allowing patients to sue in state court for harmful side effects of drugs that aren’t properly disclosed even if the drug has been approved by the FDA.
  • Pharmaceutical company mergers: Roche Holding acquired controlling shares in Genentech; Merck & Co. bought Schering-Plough; and Pfizer acquired Wyeth.
  • Stem-cell research: President Obama reversed the Bush administration’s restrictions on federal financing for stem-cell research.
  • FDA appointments: The appointments of Margaret Hamburg, M.D., and Joshua Sharfstein, M.D., to FDA positions raised expectations that the agency would assign a higher priority to safety and efficacy and address the agency’s weaknesses in drug approval.
  • PSA blood tests: The prostate cancer screening test was found to save few lives, and the test also was found to lead to risky and unnecessary treatments.
  • Pistachio contamination. Although Salmonella infested pistachios were shipped to 31 states, the CDC only identified one person with the strain of Salmonella in the recall.
  • Plan B contraceptive: Following a court ruling, the FDA reduced the age for selling Plan B – the “morning after” contraceptive – without a prescription from 18 to 17.
  • Swine flu: At the end of April, U.S. Homeland Security and the CDC declared a public health state of emergency. The World Health Organization declared the flu a “pandemic” in mid-June.
  • Health care reform: A coalition – including labor, the drug and device industries, and health insurance lobbyists – met with the Obama administration and indicated their willingness to control costs voluntarily. However, the industry groups later hedged on their initial pledge.
  • Regulation of tobacco products: The law allows the FDA to regulate many of the contents of products; requires companies to make public their ingredients; prohibits most flavorings; mandates larger warnings; and controls marketing campaigns.
  • Zicam: The FDA issued a consumer warning against Zicam, a popular cold remedy, after hundreds of reports that zinc in the drug destroyed users’ sense of smell.
  • Nestles Toll House cookies: The ready-to-cook cookie dough was recalled because the dough was contaminated with E. coli, sickening 69 persons in 29 states.
  • Regina Benjamin, M.D.: Benjamin, who established and practiced at a clinic in Alabama, was named U.S. Surgeon General.
  • Health care reform: The summer debates heated up with the stridency of the town hall exchanges.
  • The president’s health care speech: Obama supporters hailed the September speech as a “game changer,” but it didn’t win over those opposed to health reform.
  • The uninsured: The number of Americans who are uninsured for 2008 rose from the previous year.
  • Undue influence: In September, the FDA admitted that “undue influence” on the part of four New Jersey congressmen and former FDA Commissioner Andrew von Eschenbach had led to the approval of ReGen’s Menaflex, a knee implant to treat meniscus tears.
  • Yasmin: Studies found that Yasmin, an oral contraceptive widely used in the U.S., and oral contraceptives containing the progestin desogestrel are both more likely than other, older pills to cause blood clot injury.
  • Insurance companies’ about face on health care: After appearing to agree to a number of concessions on health care reform, America’s Health Insurance Plan, the lobbyist for the health insurance industry, issued a flawed report, which concluded that the reform would drive up insurance premiums.
  • Congressional health care plans: By mid-October, congressional committees had produced five different bills on health care reform.
  • Cancer screening: The American Cancer Society adopted a more conservative stance on screening for cancer, especially breast and prostate cancers, and said that screening had led to an over diagnosis of those cancers that didn’t benefit from early treatment.
  • Drug company-sponsored continuing education classes: The Accreditation Council for Continuing Medical Education took stronger measures to avoid conflicts of interest resulting from the fact that many of their classes are sponsored by drug companies that shape the message to promote their products.
  • Swine flu: President Obama declared the H1N1 outbreak a national emergency. By mid-November, the CDC had revised the mortality estimated due to H1N1, estimating that 3,900 cases had resulted in deaths in the U.S.
  • Breast cancer screening: The U.S. Task Force on Prevention issued new guidelines for breast cancer screening.
For more information on these top stories, you can order the December 2009 issue of Public Citizen’s Health Letter for $3 and read the article “What Happened in Health Care in 2009.” To order, mail a check, payable to Public Citizen, Health Letter, 1600 20th St. N.W., Washington, D.C. 20009. You also can call 202-588-1000 to order by credit card.

Copyright 2010, Rita R. Robison, Consumer Specialist

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