Improving access to information impacting public health: passing the Sunshine in Litigation Act 2010 – National Consumers League

By Amy Blume, NCL public policy intern

Amy Blume, an intern at NCL this summer, is rising senior at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut. At Wesleyan she is majoring in government and receiving certificates in international relations and environmental studies. She came to Washington, DC through the Roosevelt Institute, a progressive, student-led think tank, and is president of the Wesleyan Chapter, which publishes annual policy journals and engages in local political discourse. Amy also writes blogs for Mother Nature Network, an online environmental company.

National consumer advocacy organizations are working to pass the Sunshine in Litigation Act (H.R. 5419),1 a bill that will require critical health and safety hazards to be opened up to the public instead of hidden in secret settlements between the parties. The bill will enhance measures already taken by 41 states and 94 federal districts, but will also require consistency in reform of federal courts.

In the past few years, several forms of the Sunshine in Litigation Act reached Congress. None passed, but a variety of testimonies identified the need for such a bill, restricting court-ordered secrecy of case histories and settlements on areas of public health concerns. In a testimony before Congress in July 2008, Federal Court Judge Joseph F. Anderson of South Carolina, with 22 years on the bench, discussed the all-too common trend toward court-ordered secrecy in settlement cases. Anderson noted that lawyers often request court-ordered secrecy in settlements, but when it comes to public health concerns, the public deserves access to information. It can protect consumers and help them make more informed decisions. Anderson gave several examples of court secrecy in decisions involving information critical to public health.

Court-ordered secrecy of important information in cases of public health:

In one case before Anderson, 350 plaintiffs contended that the defendant knowingly dumped harmful levels of PCBs into a river upstate. The toxicity caused severe health problems among residents. Concluding with a settlement in which all parties were satisfied, the judges agreed to court-ordered secrecy, but Judge Anderson said that he had second thoughts on whether this was the right choice. Shouldn’t people have the right to information depicting health concerns associated with a large, local, public body of water where residents might swim, boat or fish?

In another case, a child died from an incident involving a defective go-cart. The case was settled for $1.4 million dollars. The settlement was kept out of the public domain and that same hazardously designed go-cart was still being sold. Reform of court-ordered secrecy allows consumers access to make more informed decisions when purchasing products, decisions that can protect health and safety.

Restricting court-ordered secrecy will not impinge on the court system and districts:

Reform will likely improve information available to consumers without taking a major toll on court systems. Judge Anderson’s federal district in South Carolina adopted court-ordered secrecy reform, the only district in South Carolina to do so by the time Anderson testified in 2008. New companies continued to spring up and thrive despite the changes in settlement secrecy. Interestingly, the court did not see any major increase in numbers of cases. In a testimony for the Sunshine in Litigation Act in 2009, Georgetown Law Professor Sherman L. Cohn mentioned that although reform may lead to decreased sums of money exchanged in settlements, a general “loyalty to society,” and a responsibility to public welfare, should transcend other considerations when matters affect public safety.

Information on the safety of a market product, such as a defective go-cart or other hazardous toys, machinery, jewelry, food and water, or land area, is vital to consumers, especially when the problems associated with a product may be fatal. We can’t afford to keep this information from the public. Let’s protect each other’s families and health by improving access to critical information on court cases relevant to public health and supporting the Sunshine in Litigation Act of 2010.

Data the new voice when it comes to cellular – National Consumers League

By John Breyault, Vice President of Public Policy, Telecommunications and Fraud

Consumers perusing the New York Times on May 14 who skipped over the Business section on their way to the crossword puzzle likely missed an important story for the future of communications in the U.S. In section B1 was this story, innocuously titled “Everyone Is Using Cellphones, But Not So Many Are Talking,” which noted that according the wireless industry, data and text now make up the majority of U.S. cellular traffic, overtaking voice.

Most of today’s cellphone-obsessed teenagers would probably react with a shrug and a “no duh.” For those of us that have watched the cellphone industry evolve from 1984’s Motorola DynaTAC 800X (the world’s first cellphone — a bargain at $3,995) to today’s sleek smartphones, however, the shift from voice to data represents a watershed moment for American consumers. Whereas for nearly two decades, the wireless industry’s primary source of revenue was mobile voice service, mobile data revenue is quickly replacing it. As consumers shift increasingly to using Voice Over IP (VoIP) technologies such as Skype for their mobile voice needs, this trend is only likely to accelerate.

So what does this mean from the all-important consumer pocketbook perspective? For one, consumers shopping for new cellular service should consider the price and quality of mobile data plans offered as or more carefully than they do the voice plans available. Second, consumers should be aware that the major American cellular companies are likely to begin shifting away the so-called “unlimited” or “all-you-can-eat” data plans (in reality usually capped at around 5 Gb of bandwidth per month) that are typically priced at around $30 per month per line. Instead, carriers are likely to offer data plans to new subscribers in buckets or “tiered” plans. This week AT&T announced that it would replace its $30 unlimited data plans with a $15 per month/200 Mb “Data Plus” plan and a $25 per month/2 Gb “Data Pro” plan for new subscribers. Verizon Wireless recently announced that it would be moving in a similar direction.

While these two tiers would cover 98 percent of At&T’s current data plan subscribers, consumer hunger for mobile bandwidth is projected to continue to grow exponentially. The user who is today content with a 200 Mb plan is likely to need to upgrade to the 2 Gb plan or as yet unannounced higher-bandwidth tiers in short order.

Given this trend, consumers shopping for a new cellular plan should carefully consider that number of voice minutes used in a typical month. The goal here is to avoid overbuying minutes. Many users may find that they save money by opting for a data and text plan with the lowest possible bucket of voice minutes. According to CTIA, the wireless industry association, the average U.S. mobile voice call dropped from 2.27 minutes in length in 2008 to 1.81 minutes in 2009. This is largely a result of more users replacing voice calls with texting. An example of this trend is the NCL intern who recently relayed a story of a friend whose voice mail message asks callers to simply send a text message instead of leaving a voice mail. We do not believe this to be an isolated incident.

Going forward, we expect that cellular voice service will become more like an “app” and less like a standalone service. How consumer and regulators in Washington react to the shift away from cellular voice towards mobile data will likely play a key role in shaping the wireless marketplace for years to come.

Gulf oil spill health implications — for YOU? – National Consumers League

While your heart might break at the images of oil-saturated birds and the stories of small fishing-based communities losing everything, there are few other ways the gulf oil spill can affect your health – particularly if you live near the Gulf.

For those of you living close to the spill, or who may come in contact with it as it makes its way up the East Coast, the CDC offers a few basic tips:

  • Avoid skin contact; if you’re helping with the clean-up – wear gloves, eye, protection, and cover your arms and legs
  • If you get oil on your skin, wash with soap, water, baby oil, petroleum jelly, or a cleaning paste you might find at an auto parts store.  DO NOT USE solvents, gasoline, kerosene, diesel fuel, or similar products.
  • If you get oil in your eyes, flush them with water for 15 minutes.
  • If you swallow oil, DO NOT TRY TO VOMIT because you may end up with oil in your lungs.
  • If you inhale oil vapors or smoke from burning oil, move to an area with cleaner air. Seek medical attention if you’ve inhaled a substantial amount or if you have trouble breathing or feel dizzy.

If you are worried about your seafood getting contaminated, you can keep tabs on food safety on the FDA’s oil spill site, which includes federal and state links regarding closed waters.  State and federal officials are monitoring the water and the food coming out of the Gulf to ensure that it remains safe to consume. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) a scientific agency within the Department of Commerce focused on the conditions of the oceans and atmosphere, is closing fish and seafood harvesting areas that are contaminated as a precautionary measure.  The FDA states on their site that ‘there is no reason to believe that any contaminated product has made its way to the market.’

To learn more about the air, water, and food monitoring that’s being done by the government to protect your health, visit HHS’ oil spill site.

Changes for asthma medication – National Consumers League

Recently there has been important news from the Food and Drug Administration about the medications used to treat asthma. Understanding your asthma medications will help you understand your asthma and keep you healthy.

If you have asthma you should be seeing a health care practitioner and have a treatment plan in place, which may include medications. Asthma is usually treated with two kinds of medications – fast-acting inhalers (or rescue inhalers) and long-term controllers. Recently the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) made some important announcements regarding both long-term controllers and fast-acting inhalers.

Long-term controllers: long-acting beta-agonists (LABAs)

LABAs are used as long-term asthma controllers relax muscles in the airways and lungs. They can help patients breathe easier and lessen symptoms of asthma such as wheezing and shortness of breath. Because of safety concerns, FDA is requiring changes to how LABAs are used to treat asthma. Studies have shown that use of LABAs increase the risk of hospitalization and even death.

FDA is now requiring the following to appear on the label to ensure the safe use of the LABAs:

  1. LABAs should only be used by those who cannot control their asthma with other medications, and then only for the shortest possible time.
  2. LABAs should never be used without also taking an asthma controller medication, like an inhaled corticosteroid. Medications that include both a LABA and an inhaled corticsteroid are Advair and Symbicort. Single ingredient LABAs such as Serevent and Foradil, should not be used alone.
  3. Children and teens should be prescribed only the combination LABAs to ensure compliance with both medications.

In addition to the label changes, FDA is requiring the manufacturers of LABAs to study the drug’s safety when combined with other drugs, such as inhaled corticosteroids. The manufacturers must also develop risk evaluation and mitigation strategies. These include new medication guides for patients and an education plan for healthcare professionals about the appropriate use of LABAs,

Fast-acting inhalers

Recently the FDA announced the phase out of seven fast acting inhalers that use chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). Due to concerns about how CFCs damage the earth’s ozone, which protects life from the damaging effects of the sun’s ultraviolet rays, the US has been banning the use of CFCs since the 1970s. CFCs, which make the contents of a canister spray out, have been banned in most consumer aerols, (such as hairspray) for decades. CFCs aren’t harmful to people. Medical devices using CFCs are among the last to be affected.

Many manufacturers have reformulated or are reformulating their inhalers so they don’t contain CFCs. Four of the seven inhalers that were part of FDA’s announcement are no longer being made. The three other inhalers will be phased out over the next three years, and will be banned after the end of 2013. A new way of delivering asthma medications has started replacing CFCs and is called hydrofluoroalkane (HFA). It has been used in inhalers for more than a decade and will continue to replace CFC inhalers as they’re phased out.

The asthma medication in the new inhalers is the same. Only the way the inhaler gets the medicine to your lungs is different. If you use one of the CFC inhalers being phased out, talk to your health care practitioner about using another type of inhaler that does not use CFCs

For more information on the devices that are no longer being made and whose sale will be forbidden after 2013 see the FDA’s announcement.

Medicare Part D rebate checks – coming to a mailbox near you – National Consumers League

Under the new health law, Medicare beneficiaries are set to experience a variety of changes in an effort to deliver higher quality care and reduce waste and fraud.

As the government tries to close up the Part D coverage gap by 2020, beneficiaries who reach the gap this year will begin receiving $250 rebate checks beginning June 10th, and they will continue to be sent monthly as people reach the “donut hole”. CMS reminds beneficiaries that there are no new forms to fill out for this rebate; if someone is asking you to do so; you should report it as fraudulent behavior. You are not required to give any personal information to obtain this check.  

For more information related to Medicare and the new law, call Medicare directly (1-800-MEDICARE (1-800-633-4227)). If you suspect Medicare-related fraud or scams, visit NCL’s Fraud Center to issue a complaint.

Labels reveal nutritional minefield in afterschool snacks – National Consumers League

By Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director

Like many Americans, I like having nutritional labels on the foods. And I pride myself on being savvy enough to read them carefully and parse out the fat, sodium, protein, and calories and most importantly, how many servings per container.  In that spirit, I recently arrived home triumphantly clutching a new item that would serve as alternative to the Lean Pocket afterschool snacks I usually buy for my 14-year-old son. He wants something quick and tasty, and I want something that gives him good nutritional.

Lean Pockets are pretty good on calories and fat, but they have 490 or so milligrams of sodium per serving, and each package has 2 servings, and my growing kid eats the whole thing without blinking. A recent New York Times article this week described the food industry’s growing resistance to government and consumer groups’ demands that the amount of sodium be reduced in processed foods.

As the article noted, “By all appearances, this is a moment of reckoning for salt. High blood pressure is rising among adults and children. Government health experts estimate that deep cuts in salt consumption could save 150,000 lives a year.”

So my organic alternative quesadillas looked like a great option; they had same number of calories, cost the same, but had 1/3 the sodium per serving. I grabbed the box from the freezer and asked my kid to read over the ingredients so he could see why I chose the organic version. But he quickly pointed out that the so-called healthier choice was a 3- serving a box cheese quesadilla at 260 calories a serving – that’s 780 calories for a snack! And nearly 600 mg of sodium at three times 190 mg of sodium per serving (600 mg is one fourth of the daily recommended allowance for salt).

This compared to the Lean Pockets snack, which, granted, has way too much sodium at 710 mg per serving but only 330 calories, 7 grams of fat and a whopping 20 grams of protein. I thought the organic alternative was Lean Pockets’ superior equivalent, but how wrong I was! So all in all, the Lean Pockets are a healthier choice (despite having about 110 mg more of sodium). Unfortunately I had exuberantly purchased five of the organic quesadillas, only to have to exchange them for our old standby.

Which just tells you that even a consumer advocate, who should know better, can misread labels and make poor choices. Let the buyer beware, I say, and to my fellow consumers, first read those labels carefully but before you make a final choice, consider having a 14-year-old check your work!