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    Seniors Bemoan "Donut Day" - Medicare Drug Coverage Stops for Millions

    Medicare Drug Coverage Stops for Millions

    Today is "Donut Hole Day," when the average Medicare enrollee falls into Medicare Part D's donut hole, the gap in coverage for those beneficiaries with annual drug costs between $2,250 and $5,100.

    As a result, millions of seniors caught in the donut hole will go to the pharmacy this fall and be forced to pay thousands of dollars for prescriptions.

    Democrats on the House Ways and Means Committee released a report this week saying that about 7 million Americans in stand-alone prescription drug plans are at risk of falling into the donut hole. This is in addition to the nearly 6 million Americans with Medicare Advantage plans, most of which are also at risk of falling into the donut hole.

    Their report estimated that 88 percent of the Medicare beneficiaries with stand-alone coverage ended up with plans that contained a gap.

    The day did not go unnoticed. Seniors groups, consumer organizations and Democrats issued statements and held rallies. Wal-Mart unveiled a plan to cut the price of generic drugs to $4 at its pharmacies in the Tampa area, expanding by January to all of Florida.

    Seniors have complained about the provision since the new drug program was enacted but the complaints are getting louder now that millions of Americans find themselves suddenly with no drug coverage.

    "This costly, confusing and corrupt prescription drug plan written by and for the pharmaceutical and insurance companies exemplifies the conservative ideology of governance -- outsource essential government services to corporate cronies and pass the bill on to the taxpayers," said Roger Hickey of the Campaign for America's Future.

    Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), and Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), joined Hickey in a conference call with reporters urging Congress to fix the harmful coverage gap.

    "Seniors in Michigan and around the country are stunned to learn they are falling into Medicare's donut hole -- a gap in coverage that will have them scrambling to pay thousands of dollars for prescriptions they thought would be covered," said Stabenow.

    "It didn't have to be this way, but unfortunately, this Medicare prescription drug program was created for the drug companies and not for seniors."

    The Alliance for Retired Americans (ARA) held events through the country to highlight the day and rally seniors to ask Congress to eliminate the donut hole.

    Many seniors and persons with disabilities were unaware of the donut hole when they enrolled in the new Part D plans, said Edward Coyle, executive director of the Alliance. Even if they were aware, it would have cost nearly $40 more per month for a plan without a coverage gap.

    Since the Medicare Part D prescription drug plan was passed in 2003, there have been three amendments introduced in the House of Representatives and one amendment introduced in the Senate authorizing Medicare to use its bulk purchasing power to negotiate the price of drugs, thereby reducing the cost of the program and providing Congress with the funds to fill in the gap in coverage. All four amendments have been rejected along partisan lines.

    "Because the drug companies' interests were put ahead of seniors, taxpayers are paying a Cadillac price for a Pinto prescription drug benefit for seniors. Part D must be fixed to provide a real prescription drug benefit that puts seniors first," said Brad Woodhouse, spokesman for Americans United.

    Seniors Bemoan...
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    Gas Price Fall Aids Republicans

    Polls Find Widespread Mistrust Among Consumers

    Gasoline prices have fallen below $2 a gallon in limited areas of the country with the lowest price for regular self serve found in Covington, Kentucky at $1.94.

    Regular self-serve gasoline is now selling for $2.50 or less in 33 states with the national average for a gallon of regular sitting at $2.44.

    One month ago a gallon of regular averaged $2.59 and one year ago $2.69.

    A recent public opinion survey indicates widespread mistrust throughout the country over gasoline prices. The USA Today poll found that 42 percent of the people responding to the survey believe the Bush administration is deliberately manipulating the price of gasoline so that prices will fall before the November elections.

    Almost 53 percent disagreed with the idea that there is a relationship between declining gasoline prices and the upcoming election.

    Pollsters and statisticians following gas prices and Bush's ratings insist there is a relationship, however. As gas prices have gone up over the past year the President's approval ratings have gone down. Recently, as gas prices fell, his ratings went up.

    Here is a look at some gas prices from around the country in the weekly ConsumerAffairs.com Gas Price Round Up.

    California: Southern California entered its fifth straight week of rapid gas price declines, with most areas seeing drops of more than one cent per day, according to the Automobile Club of Southern California's Weekend Gas Watch.

    The average price of self-serve regular gasoline in the Los Angeles-Long Beach area is $2.86, which is 9.8 cents lower than last week, 34 cents lower than last month and eight cents lower than last year.

    In San Diego, the price is $2.79, 12 cents below last week's price, 42 cents below last month and 19 cents below last year.

    On the Central Coast, the average price is $3.08, down 9.8 cents from last week, 31 cents below last month and three cents higher than last year. In the Inland Empire, the average price is $2.84, down 12.8 cents from last week, 39 cents below last month and 13 cents lower than last year.

    "The world oil market has seen prices plummet by more than 20 percent since July, as supply continues to be plentiful and no significant disruptions have occurred so far," said Auto Club spokesperson Carol Thorp. "In most Southern California cities, motorists are actually paying less for gasoline than at this time last year."

    Texas: Retail gas prices in Texas are on a downward trend that has extended into week seven, according to the AAA Texas Weekend Gas Watch. The statewide average price for gasoline of self-serve gasoline is $2.33 a gallon. That is about 12 cents less than a week ago.

    Motorists in Corpus Christi are seeing prices closer to $2 a gallon at $2.14, a nine cent weekly drop. The highest average on the survey is in El Paso at $2.55 a gallon, also a decrease of nine cents.

    "The continued drop in crude oil and gasoline prices over the past few weeks can be attributed to a cooling of international tensions, a drop in demand and an unusually quiet 2006 hurricane season," said AAA Texas spokesperson Rose Rougeau. "Crude prices have declined more than 20% from a record $78.40 a barrel on July 14th to $60 a barrel this week."

    Iowa: Some drivers in Iowa received a pleasant surprise as gas prices fell below under $2.

    Many stations are selling the ethanol-blend for $1.99. The last time gas prices were under the $2 mark was May 2005, according to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. Energy experts say prices could fall a bit more, but not much. They're likely to go up a bit again, but are expected to stay in the lower $2 range.

    Ohio: A welcome surprise could be in store for Ohio drivers used to paying nearly $3 for a gallon of gas. The price is headed as low as $1.99 according to some experts.

    A survey by the AAA said the average price for regular gasoline tin the state is $2.20. Ohio trails only Missouri as having the lowest average price in the nation, the AAA report says.

    Some drivers in Trumbull County were pleasantly surprised when a BP station was selling regular gas for $1.99 a gallon. The price was set to mark the station's anniversary, however, and the price was raised later today to $2.19.

    Gas Price Fall Aids Republicans...
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    High-Speed Internet Overtakes Dial-Up in Market Share

    56% of residential customers subscribe to high-speed service

    As the cost of high-speed Internet service declines and connection speeds become more important, high-speed service overtakes dial-up in market share for the first time, according to the J.D. Power and Associates 2006 Internet Service Provider (ISP) Residential Customer Satisfaction Study.

    The study finds that 56 percent of residential ISP customers subscribe to high-speed Internet service -- an increase of 11 percentage points from 2005. Correspondingly, market share of dial-up service has dropped from 55 percent in 2005 to 44 percent in 2006.

    This trend is expected to continue, as the intent to switch service providers among dial-up customers has increased by 3 percentage points from 2005 to 21 percent in 2006, while switching intent among high-speed customers has essentially remained flat since 2003 at 11 percent.

    The average amount subscribers report spending per month for high-speed Internet service has steadily decreased since 2004 -- down by $1.99 to $42.13 in 2006. During the same time period, the average amount dial-up service subscribers report spending has also declined; however, the drop is less significant -- falling $0.69 from 2004 to $18.45 per month in 2006.

    "Although high-speed Internet service is still considerably more expensive than dial-up, bundling high-speed with other products, such as telephone and video service, has made it an increasingly attractive option for many customers," said Steve Kirkeby, executive director of telecommunications and technology research at J.D. Power and Associates.

    "This is not to say that dial-up services are completely out of the picture, as dial-up still holds a significant portion of the market. More specifically, customers are often willing to pay more for faster Internet speeds, provided they are getting other services for less. Our research shows that customers are increasingly expecting offerings and incentives that recognize their loyalty, and high-speed Internet is a critical piece of the most attractive bundled offers," he added.

    The study, now in its ninth year, measures customer satisfaction with high-speed and dial-up Internet service providers based on seven factors. They are: performance and reliability; cost of service; image; customer service/technical support; billing; e-mail services; and offerings and promotions.

    Included in the study for the first time, WideOpenWest! (WOW!) ranks highest in satisfying high-speed Internet customers. WOW! receives the highest ratings from customers in performance and reliability, image, customer service, billing, cost of service and offerings and promotions.

    Bright House Networks Road Runner follows WOW! in the rankings and performs well in the billing, performance and reliability, and image factors. BellSouth ranks third in the segment.

    Across all providers, the study finds that DSL subscribers are significantly more satisfied than their counterparts who use cable modems to access the Internet. Aggressive pricing by traditional telephone companies has led to cost of service being the largest gap in satisfaction between DSL and cable subscribers.

    Despite the discrepancy in overall satisfaction scores, cable modem penetration continues to climb, with 32 percent of all households subscribing to Internet service -- up from 28 percent in 2005. DSL subscriptions are up as well, climbing from 16 percent of the market in 2005 to 23 percent in 2006.

    PeoplePC, a California based national provider of dial-up Internet service, also makes its debut in the study, and ranks highest among providers in the dial-up Internet service segment. PeoplePC receives the highest ratings from customers in four factors: cost of service, billing, e-mail services, and offerings and promotions.

    BellSouth follows PeoplePC in the segment rankings and performs particularly well in customer service. EarthLink ranks third in the segment.

    The study also finds several other key Internet usage patterns:

    • Seventy-eight percent of households subscribe to an ISP -- up 9 percentage points from 2005

    • High-speed subscribers spend an average of 22.6 personal hours per week on the Internet

    • Dial-up subscribers average 22.2 personal hours per week online -- up 3 percent from 2005

    • Data transfer speed is particularly important to both high speed and dial-up subscribers.

    The 2006 ISP Residential Customer Satisfaction Study is based on responses from 10,787 residential customers of Internet service providers nationwide.

    High-Speed Internet Overtakes Dial-Up in Market Share...
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      Wal-Mart Cuts Generic Rx Prices To $4 In Florida

      Wal-Mart, the nation's largest retailer, has announced that it will make nearly 300 generic drugs available for only $4 per prescription for up to a 30-day supply at commonly prescribed dosages.

      The program, to be launched on September 22, will be available to customers and associates of the 65 Wal-Mart, Neighborhood Market and Sam's Club pharmacies in the Tampa Bay area, and will be expanded to the entire state of Florida in January 2007.

      "Each day in our pharmacies we see customers struggle with the cost of prescription drugs," said Wal-Mart CEO H. Lee Scott, Jr. "By cutting the cost of many generics to $4, we are helping to ensure that our customers and associates get the medicines they need at a price they can afford. That's a real solution for our nation's working families."

      The Alliance for Retired Americans applauded the action.

      "The federal government should look to its friends at Wal-Mart and see that negotiating bulk discounts on prescription drugs can reduce the cost to consumers," said Edward Coyle, executive director of the Alliance.

      However, Coyle added, "This action by Wal-Mart in no way absolves it of its many failures as a responsible employer. For example, three-quarters of a million Wal-Mart workers are uninsured or are on public health care. Wal-Mart passes on to taxpayers $1.2 billion in health care costs each year."

      The company said the $4 price will be available to both the insured and the uninsured alike. The generic drugs included in the program are used to treat and manage conditions including allergies, cholesterol, high blood pressure and diabetes.

      Some antibiotics, antidepressants, antipsychotics and prescription vitamins are also included, the company said.

      Should the program prove successful in Florida, company officials say they expect to expand it to other states during 2007.

      "Competition and market forces have been absent from our healthcare system, and that has hurt working families tremendously," Scott said. "We are excited to take the lead in doing what we do best driving costs out of the system and passing those savings to our customers and associates."

      The announcement comes at a time of growing frustration with the new Medicare Part D drug benefit, that features a so-called "donut hole" of liability.

      The program covers drug costs up to a certain level, then provides additional coverage at a higher level. Consumers whose drug costs fall between those two points receive little or no benefit.

      Wal-Mart officials say their generic drug program will help alleviate a major challenge for seniors who have fallen into the "doughnut hole" coverage gap in their Medicare Part D prescription drug plans and now find themselves responsible for paying 100 percent of their prescription medicine costs.

      "Fifty-bucks for a year's supply of prescription drugs is a pretty darn good deal for consumers," said Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), an outspoken proponent of giving people access to lower-cost prescriptions. "Because Wal-Mart has the ability to shape the market, maybe other retailers will follow suit."

      Wal-Mart Cuts Generic Rx Prices To $4 In Florida...
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      Tax Credit for Toyota Hybrids Begins to Fade Away October 1

      September 21, 2006
      The tax credit for buying a Toyota hybrid vehicle will begin to fade away October 1.

      Federal law requires that the tax credit for buying a hybrid vehicle begins to phase out during the second calendar quarter after the quarter in which the company sells its 60,000th hybrid.

      Toyota reports its cumulative sales of qualified vehicles to retail dealers has reached the 60,000-vehicle limit during the calendar quarter ending June 30, 2006, according to the Internal Revenue Service.

      Vehicles purchased before Oct. 1, 2006, qualify for the full credit. For Toyota hybrid vehicles bought on or after October 1, 2006, and on or before March 31, 2007, the credit is 50 percent of the otherwise allowable credit amount.

      Taxpayers buying vehicles on or after April 1, 2007, and on or before September 30, 2007, can only get 25 percent of the credit.

      Here are the credit amounts for Oct. 1, 2006 March 31, 2007:

      • 2005 Prius $1,575
      • 2006 Prius $1,575
      • 2006 Highlander 4WD Hybrid $1,300
      • 2006 Highlander 2WD Hybrid $1,300
      • 2006 Lexus RX400h 2WD $1,100
      • 2006 Lexus RX400h 4WD $1,100
      • 2007 Camry Hybrid $1,300
      • 2007 Lexus GS 450h $775

      Here are the credit amounts for April 1, 2007 September 30, 2007:

      • 2005 Prius -- $787.50
      • 2006 Prius -- $787.50
      • Highlander 4WD Hybrid -- $650
      • 2006 Highlander 2WD Hybrid -- $650
      • 2006 Lexus RX400h 2WD -- $550
      • 2006 Lexus RX400h 4WD -- $550
      • Camry Hybrid -- $650
      • Lexus GS 450h -- $387.50

      Beginning October 1, 2007, taxpayers who buy a Toyota hybrid cannot claim the related tax credit.

      Tax Credit for Toyota Hybrids Begins to Fade Away October 1...
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      People to People "Clarifies" Its Invitation Policy

      Non-Profit Program Has a For-Profit Connection

      People to People International, which organizes international study tours, says it regrets any "misunderstanding" caused by recent complaints about the invitations it sends to parents of students targeted for 20-day $5,000 international study tours.

      Earlier this year, the Iowa Attorney General asked People to People to modify its practices after the parents of a child who died in 1993 received a letter saying their long-dead son had been "recommended" for the study-abroad program.

      "We conveyed our concern to People to People that parents who are induced to believe that their child was selected on merit are potentially misled, and may be improperly manipulated into making substantial expenditures they might otherwise decline to make," Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller said.

      People to People said it would make the changes, but consumers around the country complain that they are continuing to receive the solicitations, which many find misleading.

      "I have received a very misleading letter from the company, it basically has the same language as Iowa letter to deceased boy's parents ... It states that Michelle will advance as a young leader because of this program. It appears to be government sponsored. Apparently, it is not," said Christine of Elmsford, N.Y., in a complaint to ConsumerAffairs.com.

      The program does appear to have a government tie-in. George W. Bush is People to People's honorary chairman and past honorary chairmen include all former presidents dating back to the group's founder, President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

      But the money for the student travel comes out of the parents' pockets -- around $5,000 for a typical 20-day tour, according to Miller.

      People to People did not return three telephone calls from a reporter seeking comment earlier this month, but followed up with a letter saying it wanted to "offer some details about our invitation letters."

      "Regrettably, from time to time, we have mailed a letter to a family in error," said a missive on People to People letterhead signed by Jeffrey D. Thomas, who represented himself as Chief Executive Officer.

      But in fact, Mary Jean Eisenhower is the President/Chief Executive Officer of People to People, the Kansas City-based not-for-profit founded by her grandfather. Thomas is the CEO of a publicly-traded for-profit company, Ambassadors Group, headquartered in Spokane, Washington.

      Although details of the relationship between the two are not obvious, Ambassadors Group apparently is licensed to use the People to People name. Travel arrangements are handled by private agencies.

      The company should have no trouble finding travel agents. Its chairman is John A. Ueberroth, former chairman of Hawaiian Airlines and past president of Carlson Travel Group.

      In its latest earnings report, Ambassadors Group had net income of $18.5 million for the second quarter of 2006, compared to $15.2 million a year earlier. Gross "program receipts," revenue from programs the company runs for People to People and others, increased 21 percent to $98.7 million.

      People to People, by contrast, reported total revenue of $4.7 million for all of 2005, of which about $1.8 million came from "special projects" and $908,000 from "student programs," according to its tax return.

      Mary Jean Eisenhower was paid $157,628 in 2005, according to the People to People tax return. Thomas was paid $2,075,879, not counting stock options valued at about $14,683,861, according to public records.


      In his letter, Thomas said his group gets names of prospective students from three sources:

      • Direct student recommendations from teachers. These include the more than 3,000 teachers who travel as chaperones on the tours and "thousands of teachers that support our programs by recommending some of their outstanding students to us."

      • Recommendations from past participants. "Many students and their parents provide recoommendations for future delegates," Thomas said.

      • National academic listings. "We work with the same groups that colleges and universities use to identify potential undergraduates. Part of this group comes from the College Board ..."

      The Iowa Attorney General's Office complained that in-person presentations to families who receive the invitation letter also convey the message that students are specially selected as an honor, and People to People representatives describe the program similarly over the telephone.

      Although the company agreed to tone down its representations, recent complaints from consumers cast doubt upon that pledge.

      "On 9-7-06, I received through US postal mail service, a letter from People to People International stating my daughter had been selected to participant in an international exchange student program and that 'she had been named for this honor by a teacher, former Student Ambassador or national academic listing,'" said Beth of Lincolnton NC in a complaint to ConsumerAffairs.com.

      "I called the phone number provided on the letter on 9-13-06 to inquire as to exactly which source nominated my child. I was told by the representative, Amelia Adams, that "unfortunately, the space where a person is suppose to fill in their name has been left blank, therefore she is unable to provide that information," Beth said.

      People to People 'Clarifies' Its Invitation Policy...
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      Rising Costs Imperil Registered Traveler Program

      TSA fees of $100 or more could kill the program

      Costs could kill a program designed to whisk air passengers through VIP security lanes.

      According to the Transportation Security Administration, background checks that would clear consumers for the Registered Traveler program could add more than $100 onto the $80 annual fee companies typically charge to join the program.

      That would push the total to $200, a figure that might discourage many potential passengers from joining.

      Already operating in Orlando, Registered Traveler had been expected to expand to 20 additional airports. All have applied to TSA for permission to run the program.

      But that was before the agency announced it needed to tack on fees of $70 to cover screener salaries, $30 for anti-terrorism checks of each potential member, and possibly an additional $20 for criminal background checks.

      Those figures contradict the $30 anti-terrorism check the TSA proposed in 2005.

      The key stumbling block appears to be the $70 fee for screener salaries, since backers insist the agency does not need to hire new or additional screeners to cover Registered Traveler lanes.

      That's the position of Manhattan attorney Stephen Brill, who charges $80 a head for membership in Verified Identity Pass - the concept he created under Registered Traveler guidelines. Equally unhappy is Larry Zmunda of Unisys, a Pennsylvania firm also hoping to convince consumers to sign up for Registered Traveler. He calls the proposed price "a huge blow."

      Congress is also complaining.

      Rep. Bennie Thompson, the Mississippi Democrat whose committee is responsible for Registered Traveler, admitted the new figures could jeopardize the program. He said the projected $200 total tops anything that was ever considered previously.

      California Republican Dan Lungren agreed, noting that the TSA will have to justify its request for the $100 surcharge. Lungren's subcommittee oversees the agency.

      Using taxpayer dollars to reduce the price won't work unless the TSA backs off its stance that Registered Traveler is a private-sector program positioned only as an option for passengers.

      Even support from Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff may not help; if the higher price stands, millions of potential members may be dissuaded from joining.

      Rising Costs Imperil Registered Traveler Program...
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      Toshiba Recalls Sony Laptop Batteries

      Company says there have been no fires or overheating issues

      Toshiba says it is recalling 340,000 batteries used in some of its laptop computers, becoming the third computer maker to recall Sony-made batteries.

      The batteries are being recalled because of a number of problems, none of which are directly related to overheating, company officials said.

      Earlier, Dell Computer and Apple recalled nearly six million Sony lithium ion batteries between them, because of problems with overheating that may, in some cases, lead to fire.

      Toshiba has reported no such mishaps linked to its Sony batteries. Instead, the batteries have quickly run out of power and suffered other unnamed operational defects.

      "We have found no evidence that the problem reported by Dell and Apple in their recalls applies to our notebook PCs," Toshiba said in a statement. "Sony has confirmed to us that there is no such problem as cited in the recalls of Dell and Apple with the battery packs supplied to Toshiba."

      The company said in a statement on its Web site that it and Sony jointly investigated the problem to make sure that it was not related to overheating. It said it found that the system design and the protection system of Toshiba notebook PCs differ from those of Dell and Apple.

      Most of the recalled batteries are in computers sold in the United States, according to Toshiba.

      The problems have been reported in some of the battery packs for Dynabook and Satellite laptop models produced by Toshiba from March through May this year. The company said replacement batteries will be provided affected consumers at no charge.

      Toshiba Recalls Sony Laptop Batteries...
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      Toyota Closing In On GM for No. 1 Title

      Japanese Ramp Up as U.S. Automakers Cut Back

      The race for the title of world's No. 1 automaker is pretty well decided. Though General Motors still holds a shaky lead, it is losing traction and Toyota, having already left Ford and Chrysler in its dust, is closing in fast.

      In fact, the only remaining question is when Toyota flashes past ailing GM.

      Fueled by healthy earnings and strong sales, the Japanese automaker is boosting overseas production by 40 percent to 5 million vehicles by 2008 and planning for higher production in North America as well.

      The news from Toyota follows the Ford decision to cut thousands of jobs and close two plants to cut costs. At the same time DaimlerChrysler announced plans to cut U.S. production through the rest of 2006. GM announced similar plans earlier this year.

      So while the U.S. Big 3 are closing plants, letting workers go, and trimming production amid weak sales, Japanese manufacturers, including Toyota and Honda Motor Co., are posting record earnings and cranking up output to keep up with demand.

      In North America alone, the world's largest auto market, Toyota plans to raise production by 20 percent to 1.84 million. The automaker also expects to raise production for the first time above 1 million vehicles in Asia In China, Toyota intends to quadruple production from 2005 levels to 600,000 units.

      In all, Toyota is on track to produce 9.1 million vehicles in 2008.

      The Big 3, which rely more on light trucks for profits than their foreign competitors, have been hurt by declining sales of pickups as customers switch to more fuel-efficient vehicles.

      They are also struggling with the need to reduce the cost of big pay and benefits packages for workers and retirees.

      Toyota Closing In On GM for No. 1 Title...
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      Study: Exercise May Help Pulmonary Hypertension Patients

      It has been thought that exercise is dangerous for such patients

      Appropriate amounts of exercise offer psychological and physical benefits for patients with severe pulmonary hypertension -- an abnormal "high blood pressure" in the blood vessels that supply the lungs, according to research reported in Circulation: Journal of the American Heart Association.

      "It is commonly believed that exercise training may be dangerous for pulmonary hypertension (PH) patients, because increasing pressure on the pulmonary arteries may worsen right-sided heart failure," said Ekkehard Grnig, M.D., senior author of the study and associate professor at University Hospital Heidelberg in Heidelberg, Germany.

      "Patients should exercise, but only in certain amounts, in addition to taking medicine. All training should be started with supervision in a hospital."

      Pulmonary hypertension is a life-threatening disease that restricts physical capacity, lowers quality of life and has a poor prognosis because the heart's upper right chamber loses its ability to pump blood to the lungs.

      Although treatment of PH is advancing, researchers say adverse effects occur with the medications that treat it. Most patients continue to have symptoms, reduced physical abilities and reduced quality of life despite excellent medical treatment. Reduced exercise ability in PH is associated with depression and anxiety disorders, Grnig said.

      Researchers evaluated the effects of exercise and respiratory training in 30 patients (21 female), average age 50, with severe chronic PH who were stable for at least three months. Patients were randomly assigned to either a control group or a primary training group and evaluated before the study, at week three and at week 15.

      The control group received a common rehabilitation program, while the primary training group participated in an additional low-dose exercise program, supervised by physicians and physiotherapists, seven days a week. The daily training consisted of:

      • 1025 minutes of interval bicycle training

      • 60 minutes of walking

      • 30 minutes of dumbbell-training

      • 30 minutes of respiratory training (stretching, breathing techniques and yoga)

      "Mental training helped patients realize in the early stages of exercise if they were exceeding their physical abilities. Patients often wanted to do more than they should," Grnig said.

      Researchers conducted the study in the hospital for the first three weeks. For the last 12 weeks, researchers developed home-training programs for primary training group patients, supervised by phone every two weeks. After the first 15-week study period was completed, patients in the control group were invited to re-enter the study and participate in the same exercise training program as the primary training group.

      All training group patients tolerated the exercise well and had no adverse events such as progression of symptoms of PH or right-sided heart failure.

      "With low-dose exercise training, patients had better uptake of oxygen, which made the heart work less and allowed them to exercise more and feel better," Grnig said.

      The average increase in walking-distance observed in this study was 96 meters (314.96 feet) after 15 weeks, similar to the effect of the medication specific for PH. Low-dose exercise and respiratory training significantly improved exercise capacity, quality of life, functional class and peak oxygen consumption, Grnig said.

      Researchers found that the six-minute walking distance of the primary training group showed a significant increase compared with the control group after three weeks of treatment, and also after 15 weeks. Patients in the secondary training group also showed a significant increase in their six-minute walking distance after three weeks.

      Grnig and colleagues said that the results show exercise training in patients with severe PH is beneficial psychologically and physically.

      "Low-dose respiratory and exercise training may add to an optimized medical therapy. Nevertheless, for safety reasons exercise training should be started in the hospital and closely monitored in an outpatient setting. Cooperation between specialized centers for PH, rehabilitation clinics and general practitioners is necessary," said Grnig.

      Study: Exercise May Help Pulmonary Hypertension Patients...
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      A New Wrinkle: Botox Users May Become "Addicted"

      Could Botox be addictive? A new study suggests the anti-wrinkle treatment may be

      Could Botox be addictive? A new study suggests the anti-wrinkle treatment, a growing favorite among baby boomers, might be so appealing that its users can't stop at one or two treatments.

      A psychologist and plastic surgeon compiled the research, finding that four in ten people who use Botox have a compulsion to do so on a regular basis, to keep their more youthful appearance.

      Botox is injected into the facial area, almost instantly smoothing out creases in the forehead and around the eyes. The problem is, its effects are not permanent.

      After a period of months, the treatment begins to wear off, meaning the wrinkles begin to reappear. Some doctors report that patients return before the treatment has worn off, demanding additional injections. The typical Botox treatment lasts four to six months.

      Dr Carter Singh, a psychologist at Britain's Derbyshire Royal Infirmary, and plastic surgeon Martin Kelly, of London Plastic Surgery Associates, recently presented their full findings at the British Association of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons conference in London.

      The purpose of the study is to help plastic surgeons to spot the signs of "Botox addiction".

      In the study, more than 50 percent of Boxox users said they felt they were unable to control their youthful appearance without getting additional Botox injections. They said getting the treatments made them feel younger too.

      So far, there are no known detrimental health effects of prolonged Botox use and to date there have been no safety issues associated with the treatments. However, the study points out that there have been no studies of possible side effects.

      Botox gets its name from a toxic nerve poison, the same bacteria that causes botulism.

      Approved for the treatment of two eye muscle disorders in 1989, the Food and Drug Administration approved Botox for cosmetic uses in April 2002.

      Botox works by blocking signals from the nerves to the muscles. The muscle injected with Botox can no longer contract, causing wrinkles to relax and disappear.

      A New Wrinkle: Botox Users May Become Addicted...
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      Maine Train: A New Way to See Fall Foliage

      Want to enjoy fall foliage without worrying about overcrowded roads?

      Want to enjoy fall foliage without worrying about overcrowded roads? The Maine Eastern Railroad recommends a ride on the 57-mile stretch between Brunswick and Rockland.

      Scheduled to operate through the end of October, the line might stay in service longer if leaves are still on the trees. That happened in 2005.

      The uncertain nature of nature creates challenges for Juanita Roberts, reservations manager for the passenger excursion line. Bookings are up and the phone rings constantly, she said, but she is doing her best to estimate when foliage will peak while making sure not to overbook the train.

      The combination of fall foliage, coastal scenery, and a train ride makes the Maine Eastern an attractive alternative to jostling for space on country roads.

      "What's better than watching the world go by from the comfort of an overstuffed, reclining seat?" she said. "The train is the most stress-free way to travel."

      According to Maine's official fall foliage website, which updates conditions every Wednesday through Oct. 18, autumn colors will start to appear by the weekend of Sept. 23-24 and reach their peak between the second and third weeks of October.

      This year's wet weather has helped, with above-average rainfall reported throughout the spring and in early summer and cooler-than-normal temperatures in August. Those conditions have produced a healthy tree canopy in each of the state's seven foliage tracking zones.

      State forest and park rangers predict particularly vivid colors in Zone 1, covering mid-coast and south coastal Maine. At the moment, however, fall foliage is only 30 per cent of projected color in zones that cover all of extreme northern Maine and the western mountains.

      There are 52 native species of leaf-producing trees in the state.

      For further information, see www.mainefoliage.com or contact Maine Eastern Railroad (Tel. 866-MERAILS, 207-596-6725, www.maineeasternrailroad.com).

      Want to enjoy fall foliage without worrying about overcrowded roads? The Maine Eastern Railroad recommends a ride on the 57-mile stretch between Brunswick ...
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      Debt Free Agrees to West Virginia Refunds

      More than 1,000 consumers will get refunds

      The State of West Virginia has reached a settlement with an Arizona-based credit counseling agency it accused of unlawfully charging state residents. Attorney General Darrell McGraw said the settlement with Debt Free will result in $300,000 in refunds to more than 1,000 consumers.

      McGraw announced the settlement with Help Ministries Incorporated, which does business as Debt Free, a credit counseling agency based in Mesa, Arizona. Debt Free's primary service consisted of arranging monthly payment plans known as "debt management plans" to assist consumers facing dire financial circumstances.

      West Virginia law caps the allowable fee for administering debt management plans at 7% of the monthly payment amount. However, McGraw said Debt Free previously charged monthly service fees in excess of 7% as well as a one-time "set-up" fee that was not distributed to creditors.

      Debt Free also charged several other fees not permitted by West Virginia law, including a monthly fee for funds handling, a fee for "credit education," and an administrative fee of $20.00 for failed electronic debits.

      McGraw's settlement with Debt Free marks the third such settlement that McGraw's office has reached with credit counseling companies in the last twelve months.

      McGraw's office previously entered into settlements with Debt Management Credit Counseling Corp., of Boca Raton, Florida, and Cambridge Counseling Credit Corp. of Agawam, Massachusetts.

      Debt Free Agrees to West Virginia Refunds...
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      U.S. Still Lags In Broadband Access

      Lack of Competition Leaves U.S. 16th Among Industrialized Nations

      The constant refrain of major telecommunications and cable companies is that there's "heavy competition" for the Internet user's dollar.

      But "heavy competition" doesn't mean being able to choose only between Comcast and Verizon, and a newly published report reminds us that the United States still lags far behind the rest of the world in providing affordable broadband to its citizens.

      "Broadband Reality Check II," an update to a report published last year by Consumers Union, the Consumer Federation of America, and media policy group Free Press, found that the United States continues to promote duopolies between major telecom and cable providers as real competition, that the level of Americans' access to the Internet can be severely restricted by income level and geographic area, and that the FCC uses misleading statistics to claim that competition is healthy for consumers.

      "America appears to be a land of broadband haves and have-nots, where rural and low-income citizens are left behind in the information economy," the report stated. "This situation is the result of failed policy and a lack of imagination and vision from our policymakers."

      Among the report's findings:

      • The United States continues to rank 16th among industrialized nations for broadband development and penetration. Not only that, but broadband customers in countries such as Japan and South Korea enjoy broadband speeds that are hundreds of times faster, and can enjoy "bundled" television, phone, and Internet services for $25-$35 dollars, roughly the same price as a standalone U.S. broadband connection.

      • The U.S. broadband market is "essentially a series of regional duopolies," with the top four cable and telephone companies -- Comcast, Verizon, AT&T, and Time Warner -- controlling over 83 percent of the entire broadband market, while buyouts and mergers of companies like AT&T and BellSouth serve to reduce actual competitive markets even more.

      • The FCC continues to use ZIP codes that register one broadband provider as proof that broadband penetration is comprehensive across the U.S. But a recent report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that the ZIP code method didn't account for the lack of more than one provider in any given region.

      • The GAO also found that rural households and families with incomes of less than $30,000 were four times less likely to have broadband Internet access than urban households or those with incomes $75,000 and higher. A full third of American households are still stuck with dial-up as their only choice for Internet access.

      The report comes at a time when telecommunications issues are very much on the minds of lawmakers. The massive update to the Telecommunications Act of 1996 had many provisions to address broadband access, most of which favored the duopoly system, and seemed ready to pass both the House and Senate.

      But consumer groups and technology companies were angered over the lack of protection for "net neutrality," the right of any Internet user or content provider to access the Interent on an equal footing with others. They launched a massive grassroots campaign that drew media attention to the cozy state of affairs for the telcos and cable companies

      Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), author of the Senate's version of the telecom bill, recently acknowledged that the bill was "all but dead" and would have to be partitioned into individual bills to have any chance of passing.

      One portion of both the House and Senate bills addresses the concept of publicly-funded municipal wireless networks, or "Municipal Wi-Fi" for short. Although many cities and towns are developing their own wireless systems for free or low-cost use, heavy telecom lobbying has pushed 15 states to ban any sort of initiatives for Wi-Fi.

      Telecom companies such as AT&T are determined to roll-out high-speed broadband networks and provide platforms for "TV over Internet" services such as MobiTV. The company favors tiered pricing models that will enable only the richest clients to pay for the best service.

      Critics fear that without truly affordable broadband and equal access to content, the "digital divide" between rich and poor will continue to grow, and the middle-class users will be stuck in the "slow lane" of Internet access.

      As the authors of the "Broadband Reality Check" put it, "Faith-based policy and wishful thinking will not bring broadband to rural areas, and the repeated use of misleading data will not help low-income consumers afford broadband."

      U.S. Still Lags In Broadband Access...
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      Wal-Mart Ending Its Layaway Program

      A tradition of American retailing, the layaway plan, is fading away at the nation's largest retailer. Wal-Mart has announced it is phasing out its layaway program because of increasing costs and declining use.

      With the layaway plan, consumers who cannot afford to pay the full price of a particular item may put it on "layaway," picking it up and paying for it at a later date, when they have the money.

      Wal-Mart said it is exploring other financing options to take the place of its layaway program.

      "Demand for layaway service has declined steadily as consumers turn to other options, such as online shopping, gift cards and no-cost credit alternatives," said Pat Curran, a spokesman for Wal-Mart.

      The retail giant said consumers who apply for a new Discover or Wal-Mart credit card will get $20 cash back if they purchase at least $100 on their card on the same day.

      The company said customers can also make zero-interest payments on merchandise up to 12 months if they have a Wal-Mart account.

      Meanwhile, Wal-Mart competitor Kmart said it has no intention of doing away with its layaway program.

      Kmart senior vice president Don Germano told Reuters that the layaway program is offered as a convenience to customers who have purchased an item as a gift and want to keep it a secret.

      "Layaway service is a way for gift-givers to keep presents away from prying eyes," Germano said.

      Wal-Mart Ending Its Layaway Program...
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      Good Reasons to Wear a Bike Helmet

      Wearing a bicycle helmet could save your life. That's the conclusion of an article published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

      Doctors in Seattle studied nearly 1,000 people injured while riding bicycles. They found that the most severe head injuries occurred in young people, and that wearing a helmet makes a huge difference.

      Helmets reduce the risk of head injury by 85 percent and of brain injury by 88 percent.

      So, get yourself a helmet before you start bicycling. A good quality helmet weighs less than half a pound. It should have a hard outer shell, at least a half inch of tough foam padding.

      You can pick up a good-quality helmet for $20 to $80. Bike helmets look a bit funny and may seem inconvenient. On the other hand, they could save your life. In a serious fall, helmets can prevent severe head injuries and are very important to your health.

      Good Reasons to Wear a Bike Helmet...
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      Feds Order Electronic Stability Control on All Cars

      Automakers Have Until 2012 to Comply

      Federal regulators will require new automobiles to be equipped with anti-rollover technology know as electronic stability control (ESC) by 2012.

      Auto safety experts describe stability control systems as the single most important vehicle safety improvement since the seat belt. ESC reduces the risk of all single-vehicle crashes by more than 40 percent and fatal crashes by 56 percent, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

      ESC systems use automatic computer-controlled braking of individual wheels to help the driver maintain control in situations where a vehicle without ESC would skid out of control and likely leave the road.

      Nearly all rollover crashes occur after a vehicle leaves the road.

      The proposed National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) rule would require all manufacturers to begin equipping passenger vehicles under 10,000 pounds with ESC starting with the 2009 model year and to have the system available as standard equipment on all vehicles by the 2012 model year or September 2011 when the model year begins.

      NHTSA estimates that ESC will save between 5,300 and 10,300 lives annually and prevent between 168,000 and 252,000 injuries. ESC will prevent between 4,200 and 5,400 of the more than 10,000 deaths that occur each year as a result of rollover crashes, according to NHTSA.

      NHTSA also estimates that ESC systems required by the proposed regulation will cost $111 per vehicle on vehicles that already include ABS brakes.

      Ford Motor Co. has announced that it would put stability control on its entire lineup by the end of 2009 and General Motors Corp. is planning to have the technology on all vehicles by 2010. Several automakers have made ESC standard equipment on SUVs.

      Safety advocates have said the technology represents a crucial development in making cars, trucks and SUVs safer.

      Joan Claybrook, president of the consumer oriented Public Citizen and a former administrator at NHTSA warns that it is difficult to predict how many lives ESC could save.

      "Until you get it into production and onto vehicles, you dont know how large the numbers are going to be," Claybrook said.

      NHTSA announced the new regulation after two years of testing on more than 50 vehicles. Congress gave NHTSA until 2009 to issue a final regulation.

      "We will need time to ensure that nothing in this proposed rule would inhibit our members to keep adding this life-saving technology to more and more vehicles," said Gloria Bergquist, vice president at the Alliance of Automotive Manufacturers, which represents General Motors Corp., Ford Motor Co., DaimlerChrysler AG and Toyota Motor Corp.

      NHTSA also must decide if it will permit off-road vehicles like Jeeps to have on/off switches for ESC. While the system helps prevent accidents, it also inhibits performance, especially for off-road vehicles.

      Feds Order Electronic Stability Control on All Cars...
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      FDA Critic Blasts Merck's Vioxx Replacement

      Critic claims the new drug, Arcoxia, may be as risky for the heart as Vioxx

      With its once profitable Vioxx banned from the marketplace, Merck & Co. has developed a new painkiller to compete with the arthritis drug Celebrex. But David Graham, a Food and Drug Administration insider, claims the new drug, Arcoxia, may be as risky for the heart as Vioxx.

      Graham aired his concerns in an editorial posted on the Journal of the American Medical Association's website. In characteristically blunt language, Graham accused the pharmaceutical giant of engaging in "misdirection and disinformation presented in the guise of science."

      An editor's note on the site says the FDA gave its permission for Graham to write the editorial, but only as a private citizen, not as an agency employee. The editorial and the two studies it accompanies will run in the Oct. 4 JAMA, the editors said.

      Graham, who is a doctor and works in the FDA's Office of Drug Safety, created headlines in 2004 when he told a Senate committee that the agency was "virtually defenseless" in preventing a "tragedy and profound regulatory failure" such as Vioxx.

      Vioxx, a COX-2 inhibitor, was withdrawn from the market two years ago after it was shown to increase the risk of heart attach and stroke. At the time, it was the nation's best selling prescription arthritis medications, taken by millions of consumers. It has since become the object of thousands of liability lawsuits.

      Merck's new drug, Arcoxia, is also a COX-2 inhibitor, but the company says it presents a lower risk of dangerous side effects that other non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, or NSAIDs, such as ibuprofen.

      The FDA, however, has still not made a final decision about Arcoxia. It has asked Merck for more data about its safety and effectiveness. Merck is currently selling Arcoxia in 62 other countries.

      FDA Critic Blasts Merck's Vioxx Replacement...
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