Medical Device Daily
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WASHINGTON — At tomorrow’s HELP Committee meeting, members are expected to vote on legislation that would protect against genetic discrimination.

The measure, which received a shot in the arm last week when the president called on Congress to pass it, would prevent health insurers from denying coverage or adjusting premiums based on an individual’s predisposition to a genetic condition, and would prohibit employers from discriminating on the basis of predictive genetic information.

“If a person is willing to share his or her genetic information, it is important that that information not be exploited in improper ways,” Bush said in a speech at the National Institutes of Health, “and Congress can pass good legislation to prevent that from happening.”

Called the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act, it is being pushed by Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), who has said it would free people to use genetic tests without fear of negative consequences. She has been behind the bill for about a decade, first introducing it nearly 10 years ago.

Reports detail costs of birth defects

The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC; Atlanta) released reports detailing the expense and length of hospital stays for dozens of common birth defects.

Average hospital stays for birth defects were 6.3 days, and average costs $18,600, compared to 4.9 days and $8,200 for all admissions, according to AHRQ, which looked at hospitalizations in 2004 for all age groups. The average age for a birth defect-related hospital stay was 17.6 years compared to 49.9 years for all other hospital stays.

Jennifer Howse, MD, president of the March of Dimes (White Plains, New York), noted that January is Birth Defects Prevention Month, and that the data show the impact of birth defects on families. “In addition, these data on hospitalization costs for spina bifida support our recent call to the FDA to consider an increase in the level of folic acid fortification, as a means of better preventing such neural tube defects.”

The U.S. Public Health Service says that if all women of childbearing age consumed 400 micrograms of folic acid daily — before and during pregnancy — it could help prevent up to 70% of pregnancies affected by neural tube defects (NTDs), serious birth defects of the brain and spine such as spina bifida and anencephaly.

Hospitals spent $2.6 billion treating birth defects; half for heart and circulatory congenital problems, AHRQ found. Both the CDC and AHRQ reports indicate that among all birth defects, heart defects had the greatest economic impact.

The AHRQ data were published in Hospitalizations for Birth Defects, 2004, HCUP Statistical Brief No. 23. The CDC data were published in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Reports, Vol. 56, No. 2.

Embryonic research vote may be expedited

Senate members were singing the same songs on embryonic stem cells last week, striking familiar chords for and against funding the research with more taxpayer dollars. And to hear to two leading proponents of expanding federal backing for embryonic stem cells, a vote on a bill to do just that is likely to come next month.

“This is a high priority,” Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Massachusetts), the chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, said at a joint hearing Friday. Added Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), the chairman of the appropriations subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education: “This is the year to do it.”

Harkin then went a step further, indicating that the legislation, “The Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act of 2007,” could go straight to the Senate next month, skipping the markup process that could add language to make it more palatable to opponents. He said that’s the thinking of Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada), who introduced the measure, S. 5, at the beginning of this new congressional session.

In contrast, a minority party staff member told Medical Device Daily’s sister publication BioWorld Today that the bill could get marked up as early as tomorrow, when the HELP Committee is scheduled to meet on pending business matters. If so, the staffer said the measure could have language added from S. 51, a bill introduced by Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Georgia) to improve research into human pluripotent stem cell lines derived from techniques that do not knowingly harm embryos.

“Some of us very earnestly believe life begins at conception,” said Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Oklahoma). “That has to be respected, that position is not taken lightly.”

He was countered by Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), a pro-life member who has nonetheless ardently supported embryonic stem cells. Labeling the research “handcuffed,” he held up a shiny silver set of restraints as he advocated for federal support of all types of stem cell science.

All this Senate action follows the House of Representatives’ recent vote to pass its version of the embryonic stem cell funding bill, 253-174. Labeled H.R. 3 and sponsored by Reps. Diana DeGette (D-Colorado) and Mike Castle (R-Delaware), it’s identical to the measure that President Bush vetoed last year, H.R. 810.

He’s expected to do so again.

In the House, 290 votes are needed to override a veto, and the Senate requires 67. Harkin said the bill’s proponents have a “hard count” of 66 votes and that more of his colleagues could be persuaded with further education on the matter.