Health Roundup: Berwick fireworks fizzle

Berwick fireworks fizzle: The first Finance Committee hearing on healthcare reform turned out to be pretty subdued Wednesday. Expected fireworks never materialized: Medicare administrator Don Berwick made a strong case for the new law and Republicans were given only a few minutes to interrogate him.

The Finance panel hearing on "Strengthening Medicare and Medicaid" was the first chance for Republicans to grill Berwick since his July recess appointment to head the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS). Berwick has become a lightning rod for healthcare reform legislation that passed without a single Republican vote, but the short hearing — about an hour and a half — and the lengthy opening statements left little time for any aggressive back-and-forth.

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) called the hearing "pathetic" and said the time constraints made any real questioning difficult.

Food-safety bill clears key Senate hurdle: After a year of waiting in line, legislation to promote food safety on Wednesday moved toward passage during the Senate’s lame-duck session. The long-stalled food-safety bill by Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) passed on a 74-25 procedural vote and could pass as early as today.

Early start to health reform waivers sought: Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Scott Brown (R-Mass.) plan to introduce legislation today allowing states to opt out of provisions of the health reform law as early as Jan. 1, 2014 instead of 2017, Politico reports.

Wyden has long advocated for state flexibility and sponsored a provision in the bill that in his words "would allow states to gain an exemption from certain federal requirements - such as the individual mandate, the employer penalty and the exact standards for designing the exchanges, subsidies and basic health insurance policies - if they could find a way to do a better job of covering their state's citizens."

Gays get visitation rights: The Department of Health and Human Services on Wednesday adopted regulations that protect the rights of patients to choose their own visitors during a hospital stay. The new rule, which takes effect in 60 days, directs the 6,200 hospitals that receive Medicare or Medicaid funds to have written visitation policies that prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force immediately applauded the decision.

"Of all the things same-sex couples have to worry about, of all the discrimination and pressures we face, not being able to see our partner or spouse shouldn’t be one of them," task force executive director Rea Carey said in a statement. "Today’s announcement honors our relationships, our love and our basic humanity. An end to this discrimination can't come soon enough. We thank the administration for taking this critical stride forward and will continue to work with Health and Human Services as it issues future guidelines to ensure full and clear implementation of this rule."

CBO scores Medicare vouchers: Rep. Paul Ryan's (R-Wis.) proposal to turn Medicare into a voucher program would save the federal government $280 billion over 10 years, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Critics say the vouchers wouldn't keep up with healthcare costs and leave seniors worse off.

Shimkus reaffirms his pursuit of E&C gavel: Hoping to clarify mistaken press reports, Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.) reaffirmed on Wednesday that he is actively pursuing the Energy and Commerce gavel.

DEA nominee grilled on pain medications: Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.) said Wednesday he wants the nominee to lead the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) to make it easier for seniors to get access to their pain medications.

Enzi, Barrasso join the party: The two Republican senators are the latest lawmakers to announce their intention to file an amicus brief in support of the 20-state challenge against the health reform law.

"The health care law is a wolf dressed in sheep's clothing," Enzi said in a statement Wednesday. "Cleverly disguised as the 'Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act,' the law’s true colors and devastating effects have been unfolding. This bill is a job-killer, threatens our small businesses and further throws our budget into a downward spiral."

Added Barrasso: "President Obama used every trick in the book to pass the health care law and force all Americans to buy a product they may not want. Republicans in the Senate won’t sit back and allow the White House to manipulate the Constitution to fit its agenda."

The big number: Health insurers last year gave the U.S. Chamber of Commerce $86.2 million that was used to oppose the health-care overhaul law, Bloomberg News reports.