After Senate's Health Week bust, House set to take up healthcare

The House is gearing up to take on several healthcare bills next month, and lobbyists representing the sector are beginning to focus their energies on the lower chamber.

With the Senate’s “Health Week” ending Friday without a single bill passing, the House leadership will be out to advance the GOP’s agenda on healthcare, a perennial election-year domestic-policy issue.

Congressional aides and lobbyists say that the House is most likely to take up bills to advance the use of information technology in healthcare, expand the use of health savings accounts (HSAs) and required healthcare providers to publicly disclose the prices they charge for their services. The House’s tentative agenda for next month closely tracks the healthcare priorities favored by the White House.

In addition, the House may again vote on legislation to limit jury awards in medical malpractice lawsuits, a measure to allow health insurance companies to sell the same policies in multiple states and one on the reorganization and funding of the National Institutes of Health.

Lobbyists who support the House GOP’s aims are optimistic. “There’s some good prospects for the House to do some stuff,” said Katie Strong, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s director of congressional and public affairs.

House Majority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) intends to allow the committees of jurisdiction to shape the bills on their way to the floor, a spokesman said. Consequently, the Ways and Means and Energy and Commerce committees are likely to be busy in the coming weeks.

A health-IT bill sponsored by Rep. Nancy Johnson (R-Conn.) is widely regarded as the basis for the direction the House will take. Johnson chairs the Ways and Means Committee’s Health Subcommittee, but the measure also must go through Rep. Nathan Deal’s (R-Ga.) Health Subcommittee under the Energy and Commerce Committee and through the full committees before reaching the floor. Markups in both subcommittees are expected in the near future.

Nearly all of the items on the House’s healthcare agenda this summer will face staunch Democratic opposition, although health IT could prove an exception. A bill passed the Senate last year by unanimous consent.

Healthcare and big-business lobbyists say they are particularly concentrating on health IT because it has the best chance of being enacted. “Our CEOs are making phone calls to House leadership and committee chairmen” to urge them pass a health-IT bill this year, said Maria Ghazal, the Business Roundtable’s director of public policy.

Federation of American Hospitals CEO Chip Kahn agreed, saying, “We’re focused on health IT, primarily.”

“It’s one of the few bipartisan issues out there,” said Healthcare Leadership Council President Mary Grealy.

While a winning issue for most lawmakers, health IT is not without its potential pitfalls. Privacy advocates worry that the creation and dissemination of electronic medical records could leave patients vulnerable.

In addition, physicians, hospitals and other healthcare providers worry that the cost of implementing a standardized, national health-IT system could fall to them and are turning to the federal government for financial assistance. Hospitals are concerned about unfunded mandates and are looking for loan guarantees and grants, said Thomas Nickels, the American Hospital Association’s senior vice president for federal relations.

On HSAs, Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.) is the lead sponsor of a measure that parallels the White House’s goals for expanding the use of the accounts, which are a favorite of conservatives. Cantor is part of the GOP leadership team, serving as chief deputy whip, and sits on the Ways and Means Committee, which will consider his legislation.

Cantor’s bill would provide tax incentives for people to buy the high-deductible health insurance that is required to complement HSAs and would offer a tax credit for low-income people to use on premiums. Among other provisions, the bill also would allow people and their employers to put more money into the accounts every year. Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) introduced separate legislation designed to enable people on Medicare to incorporate HSAs into their benefits.

Proponents of HSAs also contend that the accounts will only work well if patients are able to shop for healthcare based on quality and price. The Bush administration has taken the lead on pressuring hospitals, doctors and other healthcare providers to reveal their price lists and to report on their success and failure rates.

The so-called “master-charge lists” enumerate prices that are much higher than what private insurers or public programs actually pay for medical services. Typically, only people without insurance pay those prices. The White House has been pressuring providers, particularly hospitals, to agree to a voluntary system but has threatened to back legislation to compel them to disclose their prices.

Hospitals have resisted full disclosure, arguing that their charge lists do not contain useful information for most people because they do not reflect the discounts negotiated by insurance companies, including those offering plans to people who have HSAs. Meanwhile, the administration is moving ahead with plans to unilaterally publish the prices Medicare pays.