Not a partisan matter: getting our soldiers and vets proper mental health care (Rep. Michael McMahon and Rep. Thomas Rooney)

Of all the measures of stress on the Army, the grimmest is the number of soldiers who kill themselves. The figures, which indicate 117 confirmed suicides for this year alone, speak louder than any partisan debate or outdated, inconsistent Armed Services policy.

Many of our service men and women do not seek help for mental health issues due to the fear of being labeled weak.  The current mental health assessment used by the Armed Services takes place before discharge.  If this paper assessment is answered honestly and indicates depressive or suicidal thoughts, the service member faces the real prospect of not being able to return home because of the Armed Forces’ policy to treat these issues at their facilities.  Thus, many service men and women who have been away from their loved ones for years at a time will lie on their assessment in order to return home.

These paper assessments are outdated and fall short of the care we should be providing our soldiers and veterans, as indicated by the escalating number of suicides.  Despite small rays of light like Secretary Gates’ call for additional mental health funding, the Armed Services has continued to conduct business as usual, which stands in the way of de-stigmatizing this issue and providing appropriate and adequate mental health care to those who need it the most – our brave service men and women.


Physical activity guidelines will improve our public health (Sen. Tom Harkin)

In recent years we have become all too aware of the fact that rising rates of obesity are sending our health care costs through the roof – and one of the main contributors is a lack of physical activity.  In fact, more than half of Americans do not get enough daily exercise to maintain proper health.  To begin to address this issue, I was pleased to join with colleagues from both sides of the aisle and both chambers this week to introduce an important piece of legislation aimed at improving America’s public health: The Physical Activities Guidelines for Americans Act.

The legislation would direct the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to prepare and promote physical activity guidelines based on the latest scientific evidence.  The bill would call for guidelines for children, adults, seniors and people with disabilities, to ensure Americans understand how much exercise they should be getting.  Similar to the dietary and nutritional guidelines commonly known as the Food Pyramid, the physical activity guidelines would be updated every five years.


No anti-trust exemption for health insurers (Rep. Raúl Grijalva)

When I announced my support for a full repeal of the health insurance industry’s anti-trust exemption yesterday, I was thinking of three things: regulatory fairness, consumer protection and the economy. If we’re going to fix the problems in our health care industry, we need a policy that adequately addresses all three.

Repealing the exemption is fair because, frankly, the status quo is unfair. Members of most American industries are forbidden to fix prices, create de facto local monopolies or divvy up the country in ways that hurt consumers. We need to make sure health insurance is subject to these same unobjectionable regulations.

The policy I support protects consumers by giving the Federal Trade Commission the power to investigate alleged wrongdoing by insurance providers and, if necessary, to sanction guilty parties. Health insurance companies today argue that state anti-trust laws are enough to keep them honest. In fact, few industries enjoy such lax oversight. With many states seeing major budgetary shortfalls, who believes there’s enough regulatory authority at the state level to truly protect consumers? Giving the FTC the support it needs, and should have had in the first place, is the best way to guard against future predatory business practices.


Rural communities need access to heath care facilities (Rep. Jerry Moran)

I have introduced H.R. 3806, the Enhanced Rural Health Care Extension Act of 2009, legislation that would support rural hospitals and help small towns grow.  Small towns are built around the “The Basics” – hospitals, pharmacies, long term care facilities, churches, schools, grocery stores, and jobs.  Access to these Basics determines whether communities survive and flourish.  Congress understood the importance of communities’ access to critical health care services when it established the Rural Community Hospital Demonstration Program.  The Program, which expires this November, assists small rural hospitals by providing them with enhanced Medicare reimbursements for inpatient services and other assistance.  H.R. 3806 would:

•   Extend the Program by 5 additional years.

•   Expand the Program to include and consider hospitals from the 15 states with the lowest population density in the U.S.  Currently, only hospitals from the 10 least sparsely populated states can participate in the Program.  Therefore, many hospitals in rural states meet all the criteria to be considered for participation except that their states are currently not allowed to participate.

•   Allow 30 total hospitals to participate in the Program.  Currently, only 15 hospitals may participate.  This bill would allow hospitals participating in the Program to continue participation.

While health coverage is vitally important for rural communities, the greater crisis facing rural America is access to care because it does someone no good to have an insurance card if there is no medical professional to administer care.


Building a house of health (Rep. Jim McDermott)

President Obama is trying to bring about the largest change in social policy in more than 75 years. To do that, he has to get consensus among 300 million Americans who fall into two basic categories: those worried that change will not go far enough, and those worried they will be worse off when the process is done.

The President tried to allay the fears of those who already have health insurance by assuring them that they could stay where they were. At the same time he promised to create a health insurance system for all 300 million. It would be as though you were living in a house and the president came and said he was going to build a new one that would house everyone on your block, perhaps even you.

The President is trying to build a house of health in which all Americans can live without fear of losing their coverage or being threatened by bankruptcy. In the process of building this house he is promising the American people that it will be a better place to live and will not cost more than it presently does.

Congress has shaped the president's vision into legislation that includes major provisions like a public option, prevention and wellness, increased competition and assistance for small business. Together, the president and the Congress have started to pour the foundation and build the structural supports. Much of the argument that is going on today is over the details of what the house will look like, what will be included, and at what cost.


A victory for America's seniors (Rep. Michele Bachmann)

It's been almost a month since the Obama Administration slapped a gag order on Medicare insurers preventing them from communicating with their members about how the health reform proposals may affect their coverage. Thankfully, in the wake of criticism from so many of us in Congress, the Obama Administration has finally lifted the ban.

As the New York Times editorial board said Tuesday:

“The Obama Administration has dropped its ham-handed attempt to stop health insurers from warning buyers of private Medicare Advantage plans that their extra benefits might be cut under pending health care legislation.”

What a great victory for America's seniors! 

Cross-posted from


The independent drugstore lobby vs. J.D. Power and Associates: Round #2

While a recent J.D. Power and Associates survey found widespread satisfaction with mail-service pharmacies, the independent drugstore lobby continues to claim otherwise. This forces policymakers to choose which source is accurate: America’s foremost consumer research firm or a lobbying organization committed to higher pharmacy costs. Both can’t be right.

In weighing the facts, policymakers may also want to consider other independent, peer reviewed data showing that mail-service pharmacies dispense prescriptions with more than 20 times the accuracy of traditional brick-and-mortar pharmacies. Furthermore, government studies show that mail-service pharmacies typically dispense prescriptions at lower prices than traditional pharmacies.

This year, Congress has a historic opportunity to generate billions in score-able savings by removing costly regulations that restrict home delivery in Medicare. These regulations have resulted in seniors enrolled in Medicare prescription drug plans using mail-service pharmacies 75 percent less than retirees in employer-sponsored plans.

Savings from broader use of mail-service pharmacies could be used to offset the AMP payment increases being so aggressively pursued by the independent drugstore lobby.


Obama administration refuses to release Bush-era OLC opinion characterizing “anti-prostitution policy requirement” as unconstitutional

The Obama Administration has pledged to restore transparency in government.  But last week the Brennan Center had to sue for the release of a Bush-era opinion by the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC). The opinion calls into question the government’s continued attempts to enforce an unconstitutional speech restriction – the “anti-prostitution policy requirement”-- undermining the global fight against HIV/AIDS.

The requirement forces non-profits that receive federal funds to fight HIV/AIDS overseas to adopt organizational policies explicitly opposing prostitution. While the non-profits do not support prostitution, many use HIV/AIDS prevention methods developed by public health experts, which include working closely with prostitutes in a non-judgmental manner.  The policy requirement undermines that work.

In February 2004, OLC wrote a memo stating that enforcing the policy requirement against U.S. organizations would be unconstitutional.  The opinion was a remarkable moment of honesty.  Because the February 2004 opinion has never been publicly disclosed, we do not know the particulars of its legal reasoning.  It must have been pretty forceful, though:  at least two government agencies – the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) – heeded the OLC policy requirement memo, refraining from enforcing the policy requirement for about 18 months.


The Baucus Bill: Right step, wrong direction (Rep. Joe Sestak)

The health care reform bill passed by the Senate Finance Committee chaired by Sen. Max Baucus is not the reform we need and is not the reform we promised the American people. In its current state, the bill reinforces health insurance monopolies, does not provide access to affordable care for all Americans, and does not present a full and honest accounting of its costs. While I am encouraged that the Finance Committee has moved forward, I hope our Congressional leaders will embrace the legislation passed in my committee (Education and Labor) in the House that better controls cost, expands coverage, and improves care.

The Senate Finance committee is the last of five Congressional committees to advance a health care plan. It is the only one that lacks a public health insurance option.

The public option is crucial if we want to introduce competition and bring down costs. The current health insurance industry is highly monopolized, with a small group of insurers exercising an almost "cartel" like power to dictate prices and continually raise premiums and fees on American families. Nationwide, an astounding 94% of insurance markets meet Department of Justice criteria for being "non-competitive." In Pennsylvania, two insurance companies control 70% of the market; one company has 74% of all the insurance plans in Southeast Pennsylvania.


Democrats: Stop kissing elephant trunk and reform health insurance right

The meeting got testy. Voices rose last Thursday among Democrats over differences in the Senate Finance and Health committee versions of insurance reform.

Max Baucus defended his committee’s bill, voted out last week with one Republican, but lacking a public option and burdening the middle class. He said, according to reports by Sen. Evan Bayh: “We are doing the best we can.”

Maybe Baucus is doing the best he can, considering the fact that his committee, in search of Republican support, has been kissing elephant trunk so long it doesn’t know which end is up.