January 11, 2012
By Michael Gormley
Following fatal shootings in two New York pharmacy robberies, a U.S. senator is warning that a new batch of “super painkillers” now under review could force repeats of recent violent robberies that left six people dead.
“It’s tremendously concerning that at the same time policymakers and law enforcement professionals are waging a war on the growing prescription drug crisis, new super-drugs could well be on their way, flooding the market,” said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y. “The FDA needs to grab the reins and slow down the stampede to introduce these powerful narcotics.”
A message seeking comment from the Food and Drug Administration was not immediately returned Friday.
The Associated Press reported last month about addiction experts’ fears over four drugs being tested that contain a more powerful version of one of the nation’s most abused painkillers – hydrocodone.
Schumer is particularly concerned about legalizing the drugs for prescriptions because they would be prized commodities in the black market.
Experts say painkiller addiction has been driven partly by a loophole in the 1970 Controlled Substances Act that classified pure hydrocodone – a super painkiller – as a strictly controlled Schedule II drug. But the law put combination products, such as pills containing hydrocodone and acetaminophen, into the less strict Schedule III.
Because of the loophole, patients can refill a prescription for a hydrocodone-acetaminophen drug like Vicodin up to five times. A prescription for a similar oxycodone product, such as Percocet, can be filled only once. Critics say the loophole has flooded American medicine cabinets with hydrocodone.
September 29, 2011
The Huffington Post
By Martin Crutsinger
Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke said Wednesday that long-term unemployment is an American “national crisis” and suggested that Congress should take further action to combat it. He also said lawmakers should provide more help to the battered housing industry.
Bernanke noted that about 45 percent of the unemployed have been out of work for at least six months.
“This is unheard of,” he said in a question-and-answer session after a speech in Cleveland. “This has never happened in the post-war period in the United States. They are losing the skills they had, they are losing their connections, their attachment to the labor force.”
He added: “The unemployment situation we have, the job situation, is really a national crisis.”
Bernanke said the government needs to provide support to help the long-term unemployed retrain for jobs and find work. And he suggested that Congress should take more responsibility.
Responding to a question, Bernanke said long-term unemployment, budgetary discipline and housing policy were the three most important areas where Congress could contribute to an economic recovery.
“There are certainly some areas where other policymakers could contribute,” he said.
Bernanke’s comments were his latest in a public effort to get Congress to act further to rejuvenate the economy. He suggested that the Fed can achieve only so much through policies that seek to lower long-term interest rates.
“The Federal Reserve has made enormous efforts to try to help this economy recover and stabilize” though its control of interest rates, or monetary policy, he said. Those policies have driven rates to record lows.
“Monetary policy can do a lot, but monetary policy is not a panacea,” Bernanke said.
On the housing crisis, Bernanke said strong government programs to help the industry recover would aid the Fed’s own efforts to boost housing by driving mortgage rates to their lowest levels in decades.
In his speech, Bernanke said the United States and other rich nations could re-learn a few lessons from fast-growing developing nations.
He said the successful emerging economies such as China had adopted disciplined budget policies, embraced freed trade, made public investments and supported education.
“Advanced economies like the United States would do well to re-learn some of the lessons from the experiences of the emerging market economies, such as the importance of disciplined fiscal policies,” Bernanke said.
But in the question-and-answer period, Bernanke cautioned U.S. lawmakers against cutting deficits too quickly to reduce budget deficits. He has said that could put the fragile economy at risk.
Bernanke noted in his speech that emerging markets such as China account for a large and growing share of the global economy, so they need to act accordingly.
“With increasing size and influence comes greater responsibility,” Bernanke said.
Emerging nations will be challenged in the future by their reliance on exports to drive growth, he said..
The Obama administration has been pushing the Group of 20 major economies, which includes traditional powers such as the United States and emerging economies such as China, Brazil and India, to boost domestic demand rather than relying so heavily on exports to rich nations.
February 8th, 2011
By: Sharon Begley
If you follow the news about health research, you risk whiplash. First garlic lowers bad cholesterol, then—after more study—it doesn’t. Hormone replacement reduces the risk of heart disease in postmenopausal women, until a huge study finds that it doesn’t (and that it raises the risk of breast cancer to boot). Eating a big breakfast cuts your total daily calories, or not—as a study released last week finds. Yet even if biomedical research can be a fickle guide, we rely on it.
But what if wrong answers aren’t the exception but the rule? More and more scholars who scrutinize health research are now making that claim. It isn’t just an individual study here and there that’s flawed, they charge. Instead, the very framework of medical investigation may be off-kilter, leading time and again to findings that are at best unproved and at worst dangerously wrong. The result is a system that leads patients and physicians astray—spurring often costly regimens that won’t help and may even harm you.
It’s a disturbing view, with huge im-plications for doctors, policymakers, and health-conscious consumers. And one of its foremost advocates, Dr. John P.A. Ioannidis, has just ascended to a new, prominent platform after years of crusading against the baseless health and medical claims. As the new chief of Stanford University’s Prevention Research Center, Ioannidis is cementing his role as one of medicine’s top mythbusters. “People are being hurt and even dying” because of false medical claims, he says: not quackery, but errors in medical research.
This is Ioannidis’s moment. As medical costs hamper the economy and impede deficit-reduction efforts, policymakers and businesses are desperate to cut them without sacrificing sick people. One no-brainer solution is to use and pay for only treatments that work. But if Ioannidis is right, most biomedical studies are wrong.
In just the last two months, two pillars of preventive medicine fell. A major study concluded there’s no good evidence that statins (drugs like Lipitor and Crestor) help people with no history of heart disease. The study, by the Cochrane Collaboration, a global consortium of biomedical experts, was based on an evaluation of 14 individual trials with 34,272 patients. Cost of statins: more than $20 billion per year, of which half may be unnecessary. (Pfizer, which makes Lipitor, responds in part that “managing cardiovascular disease risk factors is complicated”). In November a panel of the Institute of Medicine concluded that having a blood test for vitamin D is pointless: almost everyone has enough D for bone health (20 nanograms per milliliter) without taking supplements or calcium pills. Cost of vitamin D: $425 million per year.
Ioannidis, 45, didn’t set out to slay medical myths. A child prodigy (he was calculating decimals at age 3 and wrote a book of poetry at 8), he graduated first in his class from the University of Athens Medical School, did a residency at Harvard, oversaw AIDS clinical trials at the National Institutes of Health in the mid-1990s, and chaired the department of epidemiology at Greece’s University of Ioannina School of Medicine. But at NIH Ioannidis had an epiphany. “Positive” drug trials, which find that a treatment is effective, and “negative” trials, in which a drug fails, take the same amount of time to conduct. “But negative trials took an extra two to four years to be published,” he noticed. “Negative results sit in a file drawer, or the trial keeps going in hopes the results turn positive.” With billions of dollars on the line, companies are loath to declare a new drug ineffective. As a result of the lag in publishing negative studies, patients receive a treatment that is actually ineffective. That made Ioannidis wonder, how many biomedical studies are wrong?
January 19th, 2011
By: Charles Hugh Smith
For years, politicians and policymakers have reassured the American public that the Social Security system, which sends monthly checks out to 53 million beneficiaries, is safely solvent — and will be for decades to come. But federal spending and income data from the Treasury Department reveal that the Social Security program is already deep in the red, with outlays exceeding payroll tax revenues by $76 billion in 2010 alone.
This stunning shortfall calls into question the rosy fiscal forecasts made by the Social Security Administration (SSA) about the program’s future solvency.
The annual report of the Social Security Trustees, published in August 2010, forecast that the primary Social Security program, the Old Age and Survivors Insurance Trust Fund (OASI), would not exceed its tax receipts until 2018. Unfortunately, it happened in fiscal 2010, which ended in October. That year’s outlays for the OASI fund were about $580 billion, while receipts came to only $540 billion — a whopping $40 billion shortfall.
Add in the deficit from the second Social Security fund, Disability Insurance (DI), and the gap between total SSA outlays ($707 billion in 2010, according to the Treasury) and tax receipts ($631 billion) grows to $76 billion — more than 10% of the program’s expenses.
Short-Term Estimates Were Way Off the Mark
The SSA trustees had estimated a $41 billion deficit (excluding interest income), but the final deficit came to $76 billion — almost twice what they had guessed. Just as troubling, their estimate for total SSA income in 2010 (which included both Social Security payroll taxes and interest paid by the Treasury on the Social Security Trust Funds) was $791 billion — a number that overshot the actual total income of $741 billion (tax receipts of $631 billion plus interest income of about $110 billion) by $50 billion.
That the trustees could miss estimates only a few months into the future by such huge margins calls into question the accuracy of their long-term projections, which are stated in the report:
“Social Security expenditures are expected to exceed tax receipts this year for the first time since 1983. The projected deficit of $41 billion this year (excluding interest income) is attributable to the recession. This deficit is expected to shrink substantially for 2011 and to return to small surpluses for years 2012-2014 due to the improving economy. After 2014 deficits are expected to grow rapidly as the baby boom generation’s retirement causes the number of beneficiaries to grow substantially more rapidly than the number of covered workers. The annual deficits will be made up by redeeming trust fund assets in amounts less than interest earnings through 2024, and then by redeeming trust fund assets until reserves are exhausted in 2037.”
SSA’s estimate for total income in 2011 is $855 billion — fully $114 billion more than the program’s actual income in 2010 ($741 billion). With employment stagnant, is a 15% jump in payroll taxes remotely plausible?
July 6, 2010
by Thomas Sowell
You might think that being a Supreme Court justice would be the top of the line job for someone in the legal profession. But many Supreme Court decisions suggest that too many justices are not satisfied with their role, and seek more sweeping powers as supreme policymakers, grand second-guessers or philosopher-kings. The latest example of this is the recent Supreme Court decision in the case of …
February 23th , 2010
The report by the Institute of Medicine, one of the National Academies of Sciences, urges the CDC to promote policies that make it easier for people to be more physically active, cut calories and reduce their salt intake.
High blood pressure or hypertension is easily preventable through diet, exercise and drugs, yet it is the second-leading cause of death in the United States, said committee chair David Fleming, who directs Public Health for Seattle and King County in Washington.
“Hypertension as a disease is relatively easy to diagnose and it’s inexpensive to treat,” Fleming said in a telephone interview.
“Yet despite that, one in six deaths in the United States is due to hypertension, and it costs our healthcare system $73 billion each year in expenses.
“In that context, hypertension is really a neglected disease in this country. There’s a huge gap between what we could do and what we are doing,” he said.
Fleming said the CDC spends less than $50 million a year for a wide array of heart disease prevention programs that includes hypertension.
Simple steps like consuming less salt and increasing the intake of vegetables, fruit and lean protein could cut rates of high blood pressure by as much as 22 percent, according to the report by the Institute, which advises policymakers.
They cited a recent study that found reducing salt intake to 2,300 milligrams per day — the current maximum recommended amount — from 3,400 milligrams a day could cut U.S. health costs by about $17.8 billion each year.
Helping overweight and obese Americans each lose 10 pounds could cut rates of high blood pressure in the overall population by 7 to 8 percent, the group said.
And a program that gets inactive people to exercise could decrease the rate of high blood pressure by 4 percent to 6 percent.
Doctors typically use generic drugs such as beta blockers and ACE inhibitors to control blood pressure. Lowering blood pressure can cut the risk of stroke, heart attack, heart failure and other conditions.
MANY INSURED PEOPLE NOT TREATED
According to the report, 86 percent of people with uncontrolled high blood pressure have insurance and see their doctors regularly. But Fleming said doctors often fail to follow guidelines, which is why many patients do not know they have the condition and are not taking steps to control it.
The group called for the CDC to research the reasons doctors fail to treat high blood pressure, and consider making blood pressure treatment a quality measure in any accreditation program.
The group also asked the CDC to urge the federal Medicare and Medicaid programs and private insurers to reduce out-of-pocket deductibles and co-payments for blood pressure drugs, and to work with the drug industry to simplify the process for patients to get reduced-cost or free drugs.
About half a billion people worldwide have hypertension.
Risk factors include obesity, a sedentary lifestyle and smoking. Chronic illnesses such as diabetes, kidney disease and high cholesterol also can raise one’s risk.
February 16th, 2010
By Susan Page
Feeling down? You might consider a move to Boulder, Colo.
A massive new study of Americans’ attitudes concludes that the city at the foot of the Rocky Mountains is home to the happiest, healthiest people in the United States. At the bottom of 162 large and medium-sized cities: Huntington, W.Va.
The Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index, based on interviews with more than 353,000 Americans during 2009, asked individuals to assess their jobs, finances, physical health, emotional state of mind and communities.
“Most of our highest-scoring cities are found out West and most of our lowest-scoring cities are in the South,” says research director Dan Witters. Wealthier communities typically score higher.
Residents of large cities — those with a population of 1 million or more — generally report higher levels of well-being and more optimism about the future than those in small or medium-sized cities. In small cities, at 250,000 or less, people are more likely to feel safe walking alone at night and have enough money for housing.
The study provides a city-by-city portrait of the nation’s mood and a potential tool for policymakers.
Nine of the 10 cities that fare best on “life evaluation,” assessments of life now and expectations in five years, boast a major university, a big military installation or a state Capitol — institutions that presumably provide some insulation from recession.
Overall, the top 10 cities include four in California, two in Utah and one each in Colorado and Hawaii. Of them, only the Holland, Mich., and Washington, D.C., metro areas are located in the Eastern or Central time zones.
Many of the bottom 10 are in economically embattled regions. Three are in the Alleghenies and three in the Rust Belt. Only Shreveport, La., and Modesto, Calif., are west of the Mississippi.
Boulder’s setting, including a greenbelt of public lands around the city, may help explain its top ranking, Mayor Susan Osborne says. “We tend to have lots of opportunities for being outside,” she says. The jobless rate is 5.7%, below the nation’s 9.7%.
In his annual “state of the city” address Saturday, Huntington Mayor Kim Wolfe said budget cuts and layoffs were needed for his city to deal with the economic downturn. The city’s jobless rate is 7.8%.
There are some places where people seem naturally upbeat. Baton Rouge is 44th overall, but in “life evaluation,” the Mississippi River city is first.
February 8th, 2010
By Rob Reuteman
As the record federal budget deficit draws increasing scrutiny from Washington to Wall Street to Main Street, deficit hawks may take aim at entitlement programs including Social Security.
And, the nearly 80 million Baby Boomers phasing into retirement will set in motion a dynamic that—if not addressed by Congress—could result in the next generation getting fewer benefits.
However, despite fears that Boomers will trigger a collapse of Social Security, experts say the system can and will survive for decades and generations to come.
Congress made significant fixes to Social Security during the 1970s, the 1980s and the 1990s, and there appears to be a slowly gathering political will to make it solvent for the next 75 years.
By 2017, Social Security is expected to start paying out more than it collects in payroll taxes, according to the 2009 Annual Report from the Social Security and Medicare Board of Trustees. There is currently a large surplus, but it will be drained by the year 2037. At that point, Social Security will only be able to pay out 75 percent of its benefits.
A separate report, done by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, concludes much the same thing, but gives the system another 10 years before it begins to fall apart.
The trustees’ annual report “does not depict a program in crisis,” said Kathy Ruffing, of the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. “Policymakers should act sooner rather than later to put the program on a sound long-run footing, but today’s beneficiaries and workers approaching retirement need not fear that their Social Security benefits are at risk.”
“Alarmists who claim that Social Security won’t be around when today’s young workers retire misunderstand or misrepresent the trustees’ projections,” she added.
Beginning the Boom
Looking back, the outlook was rosy for most Americans in 1946, the year earmarked as the beginning of the so-called “baby boom.” With World War II finally over, a 15-year stretch of bad times that had begun with the great Depression was finally over. They responded by having more babies than ever before, more than 78 million of them by 1964.
For Social Security, the mini-population explosion was both beneficial and problematic. Social Security is funded mostly through payroll taxes, with present-day workers funding the payouts for retirees. Since there have been so many Boomers in the workforce for so many years, there were a lot more people putting money into the system than taking it out.
As Boomers begin to retire, the huge group of people putting money into the system will begin taking it out of the system, which then will be funded by a generation of workers—the so-called Gen X—whose numbers are some 15 million fewer. The surplus of money paid into the system by Boomers will allow it to run into the late 2030s, even though it will begin paying out more than it takes in by 2017.
“We won’t have a crisis,” says Michael Astrue, commissioner of the Social Security Administration. “2037 is a long way off and there is no reason to panic, but this is a serious issue we need to resolve. Younger people tend to overreact.”
Count Gen-Xer Tom Firey among those younger workers who think they’re getting the short end of the stick. The managing editor of the conservative Cato Institute magazine, Regulation, first wrote about the subject nearly 10 years ago in a column headlined, “Boomers Fleece Generation X with Social Security.”
“Ever since we Gen-X/Yers began working, we’ve paid 12.4 percent of our earnings to Social Security,” he wrote. “In contrast, the Boomers will get a bargain. When they entered the workforce in the late 1960s, they paid only 6.5 percent of their earnings to Social Security. Only from 1990 on, when the Boomers had earned paychecks for a quarter-century, did they start paying 12.4 percent to Social Security, the same percentage we Gen-X/Yers have paid our whole lives.”
That’s why Firey dubbed it The Boomers’ Bargain: “They’ve paid less of their earnings into Social Security than we Gen-X/Yers, yet they’ll receive more in benefits than we will and we’ll pick up the tab.”
As often comes with age, Firey has mellowed some in the past 10 years, even injecting dark humor into his outlook today. He says, “The last two generations gave themselves some additional retirement benefits just before they left the workforce. The World War II generation gave itself annual COLA (cost-of-living allowance) raises in 1975, and the boomers gave themselves the prescription drug benefit earlier this decade.”
“In essence, these generations said, ‘I’m not willing to pay for these new benefits for myself, but I’m happy to force my kids and grandkids to pay for these benefits for me,’ “Firey added.
“That’s a lousy trick. Though to be fair, older generations don’t realize that this is what they’re doing,” Firey said. “What depresses me most is that my generation will probably turn around and do this to our children and grandchildren.”
Changes Over the Years
Social Security will mark its 75th anniversary this August. Signed into law by President Franklin Roosevelt during the Great Depression, it is the country’s most successful anti-poverty program, offering retirement, disability and survivor benefits to 50 million people. Over the past 40 years, lawmakers have tinkered with the formula several times to address financial problems:
* In 1972, Congress expanded benefits with the annual COLA adjustments.
* In the 1983, President Reagan created the Greenspan Commission to study Social Security and make recommendations. Headed by soon-to-be Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, the commission grappled with the growing demographic problem of Baby Boomers, the youngest of whom were then 19.
Projections already showed that the ratio of workers paying retirees’ benefits would plunge from 16 to 1 to 2 to 1 when the last boomers retire decades in the decades to come.
To eliminate that deficit, the commission suggested hiking the Social Security payroll tax, and lifting the retirement age to 67 by 2026. Congress promptly passed the legislation and Reagan signed it.
Workers can still collect Social Security retirement funds when they turn 62, but that is the “early retirement age,” and benefits are reduced by about 25 percent.
The full retirement age now depends on when you were born. If you were born between 1943 and 1954, you receive full benefits if you retire at age 66. If you were born in 1960 or later, your full retirement age is 67. Some observers suggest the retirement age may need to be raised to age 70 if the system is to remain solvent.
* In the 1990s, Congress raised taxes on benefits to the current 12.4 percent.
In his February 2005 State of the Union Address, President George W. Bush named strengthening Social Security as one of the priorities for his second term in office. He also called for a transition to a combination of a government-funded program and personal accounts (“individual accounts” or “private accounts”) through partial privatization of the system.
This proved controversial and further Social Security reform has been blocked by the dispute over privatization. The recent turmoil in the financial markets exposed some of the problems that approach would pose, and privatization no longer appears to be on the table.