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Herb Palmer: America's health guarded by good doctors ... and now a robot?

Are you in good health? If you are, your body is operating like a well-tuned engine purring like a kitten with an occasional hiccup or two, but generally plenty of get up and go from the power center under the hood. But staying healthy is not alw...

Are you in good health? If you are, your body is operating like a well-tuned engine purring like a kitten with an occasional hiccup or two, but generally plenty of get up and go from the power center under the hood. But staying healthy is not always easy, and the high cost of medicine often puts enough strain on your pocketbook to make you feel ill all over again. That's when you hurry down to your favorite drugstore in search of relief, only to find that the high cost of miracle drugs is making you feel even more uncomfortable.
With its eye on the reasons miracle drugs cost so much, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently took testimony on whether to require that makers of Claritin, Allegra, Zyrtic and other blockbuster drug producers sell their products over the counter at regular low prices that would enable them to be sold not only cheaper, but also in greater quantities. The inquiry was very timely in view of the fact that 200 important drug patents are set to expire over the next five years on branded drugs with annual sales totaling $30 billion. That situation will give the makers of competing products a rare opportunity to lower prices and bring them down to perceived normal levels.
Generic drugs on average sell at 75 percent of the original patent prices. The general public will most certainly welcome the price differential.
Members of Congress and the president are now preparing to put the finger on the big drug companies and their tricks to delay the inevitable. However, the inventors of so-called miracle drugs deserve credit and heartfelt thanks for their work, and those guarded patents give them control for a certain number of years -- but not forever.
Patents protect the high price tags on thousands of popular medicines. For example, the patent on Prilosec will expire this month, allowing the price on 30 capsules, 20 mg, to drop from $108.04 to $46.74. The patent on Prozac will expire this August, allowing the price of 30 capsules, 20 mg, to drop from $78.21 to $58.16. The Zocor patent will expire in December 2005, allowing the price of 30 tablets, 20 mg, to go from $107.22 to $92.59. The Claritin patent will expire in December 2002, allowing the price of 30 tablets, 10 mg, to drop from $66.82 to $17.75. The patent for Glucophage, for diabetes, expires this September, allowing the price for 30 tablets, 850 mg, to drop from $32.83 to $4.12.
Sales of these five products last year totaled more than $1.6 billion. So what about the future? Two hundred patents are due to expire over the next five years on branded drugs with annual sales of $30 billion. Meanwhile, a Senate bill, sponsored by Arizona Republican John McCain and New York Democrat Charles Schumer, would plug loopholes in a 1984 law that lets name-brand companies obtain frivolous 11th-hour patents when their original patents are about to expire.
Just recently, the FDA approved a powerful new anti-cancer drug called Gleivec, which could cost patients more than $2,000 a month when it hits the market. Last year, the pharmaceutical industry spent more than $26 billion to develop new medicines like Gleivec.
We in America are fortunate in having the best in hospitals, nursing homes, day care centers, doctors, nurses, health care and medical robots -- yes, robots.
With more than 3,000 open-heart operations and some 400 transplants behind him, Dr. Robert Michler, chief of Cardio Thoracic surgery at Ohio State University in Columbus, is no novice. The procedure I now describe will be one of the first in the country to replace the surgeon's hands with 2-foot-long robotic arms. The metallic limbs will enter the patient's body through the narrow gaps between the ribs, cutting holes no larger than a nickel, a far cry from the usual 6-inch to 8-inch incisions sawed straight through the breastbone. Besides eliminating an obvious can't miss scar, the robotic approach promises to reduce the trauma to the body, speed recovery and minimize the risk of infection.
"There is no question in this writer's mind that the future of heart surgery is in robotics," says Michler.
With more than 500,000 heart bypass operations performed each year in the United States alone, surgeons are eager for ways to improve the procedure. Trials are now underway to robotically repair the heart valves, place pacemaker wires and stabilize irregular heartbeats.
(Editor's Note: Material in this column was obtained from a news story in TIME magazine, written by John Greenwald and Anita Hamilton.)

On the lighter side ...

Lars was telling Ole about his trip to Europe. He was enthusiastically telling about a museum he visited in Italy where, Lars said, they had two skulls of Christopher Columbus -- one when he was a boy and one when he was a man.
As Ole reached over to change the radio station setting, he said to Lena, "I believe I'm getting lumbago."
"Vell," said Lena, "yew might as vell svitch to anudder station, 'cause you von't be able to understand a vord dey say anyvay."

-- Ole and Lena Joke Book

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