Another provision of healthcare reform law comes under bipartisan assault

Lawmakers in the House and Senate introduced bipartisan legislation Thursday to remove restrictions on tax-exempt health spending accounts, the latest provision of the healthcare reform law to come under attack by Democrats.

The bill would nix a provision that since January has required a prescription for buying over-the-counter medicines with medical savings accounts such as Flexible Spending Arrangements and Health Savings Accounts. The language was added as a way to keep the bill's costs down because it was estimated to save $5 billion over 10 years by cutting down on unnecessary drug purchases.

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But it appears to have had the opposite effect of increasing people's use of medical services. Indeed, many doctors complain that they're seeing patients for the sole purpose of writing out prescriptions for over-the-counter medicines.

The legislation introduced Thursday was sponsored by Sens. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) and Pat Roberts (R-Kansas) in the Senate, and Reps. Lynn Jenkins (R-Kansas) and Shelley Berkley (D-Nev.) in the House. Nelson voted for the bill, but said in a statement he doesn't agree with that provision.

"Flexible Spending and other medical savings accounts allow consumers to have more control of their medical decisions and help them save money," Nelson said. "The use of these consumer-driven accounts should be encouraged, not discouraged."

The policy was originally introduced by a Republican, Sen. Olympia Snowe (Maine), as a compromise during bipartisan negotiations to avoid requiring people with FSAs and HSAs pay for the whole cost of over-the-counter medications.

The White House is so far not opposing the repeal bill.

"We look forward to studying this legislation," an Obama administration official said. "As the president has said, anything can be improved, and we are open to ideas that make care better and more affordable."


The bill drops one day after Rep. Allyson Schwartz (D-Pa.), a key centrist, testified against the law's Medicare cost-control panel. So far, at least eight Democrats have co-sponsored legislation to repeal the law's Independent Payment Advisory Board (IPAB).

The Consumer Healthcare Products Association quickly issued a statement praising the legislation.

"Over-the-counter medicines are often a first line of defense against ailments and injuries and should be treated as medically reimbursable healthcare therapies, just like prescription medicines," association resident and CEO Scott Melville said in a statement. "We urge Congress to reinstate a benefit that so many American families use to make medical expenses more affordable."