Health Highlights: May 24, 2012

Here are some of the latest health and medical news developments, compiled by the editors of HealthDay:

New Health Care Law Saves Patients Billions in Drug Costs, Medicare Says

In the first four months of this year, more than 416,000 Americans with Medicare saved an average of $724 per person on prescription drug costs after they hit the drug benefit coverage gap (“donut hole”), for a total savings of $301 million, according to data released Thursday by the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services.

Under the Affordable Care Act, more than five million seniors and people with disabilities in Medicare saved a total of $3.5 billion on prescription drugs after they hit the donut hole between March 2010 and April 2012.

In addition, more than 12 million people in traditional Medicare received at least one free preventive service at no cost to them in the first four months of this year. That included 856,000 who took advantage of the Annual Wellness Visit provided in the Affordable Care Act.

Last year, more than 26 million people in traditional Medicare received one or more preventive benefits free of charge, according to the CMS.

In 2010, people with Medicare who hit the donut hole received a one-time $250 rebate. In 2011, Medicare recipients in the donut hole began receiving a 50 percent discount on covered brand name drugs and seven percent coverage of generic drugs. This year, coverage for generic drugs for people in the donut hole rose to 14 percent.

Coverage for both brand name and generic drugs for people in the donut hole will continue to increase until 2020, when the donut hole will no longer exist, the CMS said.


Fukushima Workers Not Killed by Radiation: U.N. Agency

Radiation did not cause the deaths of six former workers at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan, according to the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation.

The workers died in the year since an earthquake and tsunami triggered nuclear meltdowns at the plant. While several workers were irradiated after contamination of their skin, the committee said “no clinically observable effects have been reported,” the Associated Press reported.

In a statement, chairman Wolfgang Weiss said the agency plans to evaluate irradiation levels for about two million people who lived in Fukushima prefecture at the time of the March 11, 2011 incident.

On Wednesday, the World Health Organization said several areas near the nuclear plant had radiation above cancer-causing levels, the AP reported.


Huge Tobacco Tax Hike in New Zealand

There will be a 40 percent increase in tobacco taxes over the next four years, the New Zealand government announced Thursday.

Officials hope that higher taxes and tighter restrictions on smoking will help the nation achieve the goal of eliminating smoking by 2025, the Associated Press reported.

New Zealand already has among the highest cigarette prices in the world. With the new taxes, the average cost of a pack of cigarettes will be $15 by 2016.

Smoking rates among adults have fallen from about 30 percent in 1986 to about 20 percent today, and cigarette sales have fallen even more sharply, the AP reported.


Nancy Reagan Recovering From Fall

Former First Lady Nancy Reagan is still recovering from a fall in March in which she sustained a number of broken ribs, a spokeswoman said Tuesday. She was unable to attend an event Tuesday evening at the Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif., CNN reported.

Reagan, 90, “has been recovering slowly and has been adding a few appointments back on to her schedule, but was advised by her doctor today not to try and attend large events too far from home just yet,” spokeswoman Joanne Drake said Tuesday.

According to CNN, Mrs. Reagan has been hospitalized at least two times over the past few years and rarely appears in public. In October 2008, she was hospitalized with a broken pelvis after a fall at her home, CNN said.


Chan Reappointed WHO Director-General

Dr. Margaret Chan has won a second five-year term as director-general of the World Health Organization.

Chan ran unopposed and was reappointed Wednesday during a closed-door session, the Associated Press reported.

In a WHO news release, Chan said she will fight for universal health coverage as “the single most powerful concept that public health has to offer. It is a powerful equalizer.”

She also said uncertainty over international health funding is a top priority, the AP reported.

Chan is a Canadian-trained medical doctor with Chinese nationality who joined WHO in 2003, after serving as health director in Hong Kong.