Bush administration late on health reform report

The Senate Finance Committee will hold a hearing on healthcare reform next Wednesday, at which time members will hear testimony from respected experts such as the vice chairman of the federally chartered Citizen’s Health Care Working Group, Richard Frank.

But the panel will lack one key perspective: The Bush administration is four months overdue in issuing its response, required by law, to the Working Group’s recommendations for reforming the U.S. healthcare system and extending coverage to the uninsured.

The panel, created by the same 2003 law that enacted the Medicare prescription-drug benefit, issued its report to the White House and Congress on Sept. 29, 2006. Under that same law, President Bush had to submit a response within 45 days, which would have been Nov. 13.

Neither the White House nor the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) issued a statement acknowledging receipt of the report when it came out. The only official action taken since then was a Jan. 5 statement from the White House in which the president designated HHS Secretary Mike Leavitt as his surrogate.
“We’re in the process of finishing up the response and hope to have it out soon,” an HHS spokeswoman said, adding that a draft version is circulating at the department.

Although the Finance Committee isn’t waiting for HHS to complete its work, a spokeswoman said that committee still believes the administration should live up to its obligations. “We feel that it matters that the administration follow the law,” she said.

According to the Group’s mission statement, it must foster “a nationwide public debate about improving the health care system to provide every American with the ability to obtain quality, affordable health care coverage” and develop “an action plan for Congress and the President to consider as they work to make health care that works for all Americans.” Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) authored the language that created the panel.

The Working Group conducted public meetings around the country and engaged in research on healthcare issues for nearly a year before issuing its recommendations. In addition to Vice Chairman Frank, a Harvard health economist, the panel’s members included hospital administrators, physicians, nurses, a union president and a corporate benefits manager.

Among the panel’s recommendations is that all people have access to an affordable package of core healthcare benefits by 2012 and that all citizens be required to participate in a reformed healthcare system.

In addition to mandating a White House response, the law states that five congressional committees must hold one hearing each on the report within 45 days of receiving the White House response: House Education and Labor; House Energy and Commerce; House Ways and Means; Senate Finance; and Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP).

Lawmakers are now scrambling to take the initiative.

“It doesn’t surprise me that President Bush is ignoring this Citizens Health Care Working Group,” Rep. Pete Stark (D-Calif) said in a written statement. “For years, Bush has ignored the 47 million people without health insurance and continues to ignore all of America’s citizens in his relentless pursuit of the War in Iraq,” said Stark, who chairs the Ways and Means Committee’s Health subcommittee.

The absence of White House action on the working group has not delayed Congress, powerful interest groups or presidential candidates from weighing in on the matter of healthcare reform. Wyden and others have introduced legislation aiming to achieve universal coverage.

Meanwhile, President Bush has been promoting aggressively his own proposal to change the tax exemption for health insurance premiums and coordinate state-based coverage initiatives.

In addition to the Finance Committee hearing scheduled next week, the Senate HELP panel hosted a hearing on the uninsured within days of the Congress convening in January. The Finance, HELP, Energy and Commerce and Ways and Means committees have debated healthcare reform at hearings on the president’s budget proposal, Medicare and the State Children’s Health Insurance Program.