Health Buzz: A Proposed Abortion Regulation and Other Health News

A link between Vytorin and cancer, medical debt’s steady increase, and hard numbers on hospitals deaths

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New Proposal Would Protect Medical Workers Who Refuse Abortions

Healthcare workers who refuse to take part in abortions would have more protection with a Bush administration proposal issued yesterday, the Wall Street Journal reports. The new regulation, which could take effect after a 30-day comment period, would cut off federal funding to state governments if they force medical workers to help with or refer patients for abortions. The rule, the Journal reports, could also affect contraception services, including Plan B, the so-called morning-after pill.

The definition of abortion listed in an earlier version of the proposal included contraceptive pills and intrauterine devices, but the newer document doesn't include this provision. U.S. News's Deborah Kotz blogged about that proposal last month.

FDA Investigating Vytorin-Cancer Link

The Food and Drug Administration said yesterday it launched an investigation into a possible link between Vytorin and cancer, but the agency noted patients can continue taking the cholesterol-lowering drug. The investigation was sparked by preliminary results from a recent trial that show a larger than expected percentage of patients taking Vytorin developed or died from cancer compared with patients taking a placebo. However, other studies counter the findings. The Associated Press reports that Tufts University School of Medicine researchers recently analyzed 15 statin trials and determined that the drug does not increase the risk of cancer. "Nobody should avoid taking a statin because of concerns about cancer," American Cancer Society epidemiologist Eric Jacobs told the AP.

In January, U.S. News's Avery Comarow provided useful questions and answers on statins after a study showed that Vytorin—a combination of the statin Zocor and the nonstatin Zetia—wasn't any better than the same dose of Zocor alone at keeping fatty plaque from building up in the arteries of the neck.

Medical Debt on the Rise

The number of Americans struggling to pay their medical bills is on the rise, and medical debt increasingly affects people at every income level, according to a new report from the Commonwealth Fund. The report, "Losing Ground: How the Loss of Adequate Health Insurance Is Burdening Working Families," paints a pretty bleak picture of how high healthcare costs are not only causing people to avoid getting the medical care they need but also straining their ability to pay for basic necessities like housing and food.

U.S. News's Michelle Andrews provides four ways to save on your medical bills.

Hospital Deaths Go Public

How successful thousands of individual U.S. hospitals are on the ultimate test of hospital competence—whether very sick patients live or die—is now revealed on the Web in hard numbers, Avery Comarow reports. The Hospital Compare page maintained by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) this week began displaying actual hospital death rates for heart attack, heart failure, and pneumonia patients. Until now, only relative performance had been shown—whether mortality for such patients at a particular hospital was about the same as the national average, better than average, or worse than average.

Check out U.S. News's America's Best Hospitals for a list of top facilities across the country.

—January W. Payne