Higher costs to patients for prescription drugs and reductions in coverage by state health insurance are among changes to the public healthcare system identified by the German government late last month as it tries to come to grips with runaway costs in that sector. The reforms are intended to take effect next Jan. 1. A tax adding EUR 1 per pack of cigarettes also is part of the plan, to be implemented in three stages.

In announcing the plans, Health Minister Ulla Schmidt said Germany's state-run healthcare system is the third most expensive in the world, trailing only the U.S. and Switzerland, but added that the quality of care under that system is "mediocre." That combination, Schmidt said, is why the system "must be modernized and changed strongly."

Also as part of the reform plan, the government seeks to loosen the grip family-run pharmacies have on drug sales by changing existing laws in order to let Germans order pharmaceuticals by phone or over the Internet. According to Schmidt, that would allow consumers to take advantage of mail order pricing of drugs, including lower prices in other European Union countries or from distributors outside the deeply entrenched network of small pharmacies.

At present, annual healthcare contributions from employers and employees amount to about EUR 142 billion, but public healthcare costs exceeded that by something on the order of EUR 2.5 billion last year. Sharp rises in the overall cost of the healthcare system in recent years show no sign of abating without major reforms.

With a consistently high number of unemployed workers in Germany due to the weakness of the domestic and international economies, mandatory healthcare contributions from those who still hold jobs have been increased in order to subsidize the country's healthcare system. The ruling Socialist-Green coalition has expressed the hope that the cost-cutting measures will enable a reduction in healthcare contributions from employers and employees to less than 13% of a worker's gross pay from the current average of nearly 14.5%.

The reform proposals are expected to face a July 9 vote in the lower house of parliament, where the Socialist-Green coalition has a narrow majority. Portions of the plan also will need approval from the upper house controlled by the conservative opposition. According to German press reports, the opposition has said it sees the need for reforms, but signaled that it would reject the current proposal because it doesn't go far enough and is too bureaucratic.

Cardio ProfilER on market in UK, Ireland

Biosite (San Diego, California) said that its new Cardio ProfilER diagnostic panel for rapid evaluation of chest pain patients now is available commercially in the UK and Ireland. The company described the product as its first "symptom panel" that is, a test panel that incorporates multiple markers "to address vague symptoms such as chest pain that are often associated with different diseases, making it difficult for physicians to determine the source of the problem."

The point-of-care Cardio ProfilER allows physicians to perform the test in a variety of healthcare locations, with results obtained within 20 minutes. The company said that creatinine kinase, myoglobin and troponin I, three of the four markers measured by the Cardio ProfilER, "are widely accepted as indicators of a heart attack." The fourth marker, B-type natriuretic peptide, is a recognized marker of congestive heart failure. Kim Blickenstaff, president and CEO of Biosite, said, "By providing physicians with a diagnostic tool for immediate evaluation of chest pain, we hope to contribute to better outcomes for our customers and their patients."

Biosite also signed an agreement with Biosyn Diagnostics UK (Manchester, UK) to serve as the exclusive distributor of certain Biosite products in England, Scotland and Wales. Biosyne Diagnostics UK is an affiliate of Biosyn Diognostics (Belfast, Northern Ireland), already the distributor of Biosite products in Ireland and Northern Ireland.

The UK unit will distribute the Cardio ProfilER, along with Biosite's Triage Cardiac Panel, used to aid in detecting acute myocardial infarction; the Triage BNP Test, which aids in the diagnosis and assessment of heart failure and risk assessment of acute coronary syndrome patients; and the Triage TOX Drug Screen and Triage Drugs of Abuse Panel for drug screening. Biosite's products previously were distributed in Great Britain by Axis-Shield (Dundee, Scotland) under an agreement that ended last October.

Genotyping effort completed

Oxagen Ltd. (Abingdon, UK) said it completed the genotyping of DNA from 2,000 volunteers in the PROCARDIS consortium study of the genetics of heart disease. They are annotated with information about the metabolic status and history of heart disease in each subject. The database is being used for linkage studies in an attempt to identify the genetic common denominators between siblings who had a heart attack.

The consortium, which is coordinated by the cardiovascular medicine department at the University of Oxford's (Oxford, UK) Wellcome Trust Centre for Human Genetics, involves five European academic partners, along with Oxagen and AstraZeneca plc (London).

Early-stage focus for planned fund

BioScience Managers Ltd. (London) and Imperial College London announced a joint initiative to raise a 50 million ($80.4 million) fund focused on early-stage companies. The BML Ventures Imperial Fund will make investments in 12 to 15 start-ups. The fund will have exclusive, preferential access to technology from Imperial College, and expects to invest 50% of its funds in companies based on the college's science, with the remainder being invested in similar opportunities, predominantly in the UK.

The fund said it will aim to close the development gap between early-stage start-ups and more advanced companies that are attractive to mainstream venture capitalists, putting between 500,000 and 5 million into the companies in which it invests.