Ineffective Vaccine Tied to Boston Measles Outbreak

Boston is entering the third month of a measles outbreak. Officials say a major factor is that many Americans received an ineffective vaccine in the 1960s.

Boston has counted its 14th case of measles. Another 16 possible cases are under investigation. The city hadn't seen a measles case since 1999. Nationally there are only 50 cases in a typical year.

A computer programmer brought measles to Boston from India. So far seven other people in the high-rise office tower where he works have been infected. Other cases have popped up in two other downtown office buildings, a nearby restaurant, and in East Boston, in an unvaccinated woman with no known connection to the others.

Health officials say most cases involve people in their thirties and forties who were vaccinated in the 1960s with an ineffective vaccine. Millions of Americans vaccinated in that period are still susceptible. — Richard Knox

Prescription Drug Prices Outpacing Inflation

June 21, 2006 — Prescription drug prices are going up faster than ever, according to two new studies.

The senior group AARP reports that prices for the 50 brand-name drugs used most by older adults rose faster in the first quarter of this year than at any time in the past six years. That nearly four-percent increase was triple the rate of general inflation.

AARP's study didn't look at the prices charged seniors under the new Medicare prescription drug benefit. But the consumer group Families U.S.A. did.

Its study found that virtually all Medicare plans have raised prices for the top 20 drugs prescribed for seniors since the start of the benefit. And the group contends those increases show the private Medicare plans haven't done as good a job negotiating discounts as Medicare officials contend. — Julie Rovner

Lawsuits: Hospitals Conspired on Nurse Wages

June 21, 2006 — Four class-action lawsuits were filed in four major U.S. cities this week, on behalf of nurses who allege that hospitals illegally conspired to keep nurses' wages down.

The lawsuits were filed against hospitals in Chicago, Memphis, Albany and San Antonio. They seek back pay for nurses who say they suffered financially because the hospitals decided to keep salaries down and simply not compete with each other for nurses.

The nurses are backed by the nation's largest health-care union, the Service Employees International Union. SEIU officials say nurses are leaving the profession because of difficult working conditions: short staffing, mandatory overtime and low pay. They say thousands are now working in other professions, even though many health experts worry about a growing shortage of nurses.

Officials with the American Hospital Association, which represents most U.S. hospitals, say they're now reviewing the lawsuits and cannot yet comment. — Patricia Neighmond

Supreme Court to Hear 'Partial-Birth' Abortion Cases

June 20, 2006 — The Supreme Court has agreed to broaden its look at abortion restrictions in next year's term.

When President Bush signed the Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act in 2003, opponents of the measure filed three separate lawsuits challenging its constitutionality in New York, Nebraska and San Francisco. In all three suits, both district and appeals courts struck down the measure as written.

In February the Supreme Court agreed to hear the Nebraska case, and now it has added the San Francisco case to next year's docket. The two are expected to be merged and heard as one.

Despite the unanimity in the lower courts, however, the case is being watched closely by those on both sides of the abortion dispute. The last decision on the issue, six years ago, was a 5-4 ruling. And one of those voting with abortion-rights advocates was Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. She's now been replaced by Justice Samuel Alito, who's considered likely to rule the other way. — Julie Rovner

High Court Rejects State Challenge to Medicare Drug Law

June 19, 2006 —The Supreme Court has rejected a suit filed by several states to invalidate a key part of the new Medicare prescription drug law.

Five states, led by Texas, went directly to the Supreme Court in March. They're challenging a piece of the Medicare law known as the "clawback." The idea is that with the federal government taking over from the states the drug costs of those patients on both Medicare and Medicaid, states would get a windfall. The clawback requires states to return most of those savings to Washington.

But many states say they were doing a better job at holding down drug costs than the new program does, and the clawback will actually cost them money.

The Supreme Court, however, did not rule on the merits of the issue. It simply ruled the suit needs to go through the lower federal courts first.— Julie Rovner

South Dakota Abortion Ban Faces Ballot

June 19, 2006 — South Dakota's sweeping abortion ban won't go into effect next month as scheduled. Opponents have gathered enough signatures to force the law to the November ballot.

The secretary of state has certified that a petition drive has resulted in more than the 16,700 signatures needed to force the ban to the ballot. The law signed earlier this spring would ban virtually all abortions in the state.

The legislature purposely went further in the law than the U.S. Supreme Court has allowed under the landmark 1973 ruling Roe v. Wade. The intent was to give the newly configured court a way to revisit abortion rights in general.

But rather than suing, abortion rights advocates instead have so far concentrated on defeating the measure at the ballot box. — Julie Rovner

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