Health Roundup: Consumer protection regs unveiled

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) unveiled new consumer protection regulations Monday to near-unanimous praise. The medical-loss ratio regulations track closely to definitions adopted last month by the National Association of Insurance Commissioners, and contained few surprises. 

One key provision: McDonald's and other employers that offer low-value "mini-med" health plans to 1.4 million workers will temporarily be allowed to keep them under the highly anticipated regulations. "No one's going to lose their coverage, even though this coverage isn't the best coverage in some cases," Jay Angoff, the director of the Office of Consumer Information and Insurance Oversight, said at a press briefing Monday morning. "No one's going to lose even that coverage."

Miller makes MLR case against repeal: Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, pointed out that the regulations could put an estimated $4.9 billion back in the hands of consumers over the next three years.

"Repeal this?" Miller asked in a statement. "Republicans in Washington have pledged to repeal the health care law. If they succeed, they will be taking money right out of the pocket of millions of average Americans. They might think that’s a good idea but I certainly don’t. So let’s just be very clear about what’s at stake when Republicans call for the repeal of the new health care law."

Rockefeller vows mini-med hearings: The West Virginia Democrat, one of the main advocates of the medical-loss-ratio protections in the healthcare reform law, criticized the special treatment offered to low-value plans in federal regulations unveiled Monday.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller said in a statement that he was "disappointed that limited benefit 'mini-med' plans continue to seek exceptions from these standards," but that "they should know that their requests will be subject to close scrutiny."

He also vowed to hold hearings on the plans, some of which offer as little as $2,000 worth of coverage a year, in his capacity as chairman of the Senate commerce panel.

Not everyone's delighted: The industry group America's Health Insurance Plans pointed out that HHS can grant states adjustments only if their individual markets are disrupted.

"These regulations acknowledge the potential for individual insurance market disruption and take a first step toward minimizing such disruptions," AHIP President and CEO Karen Ignagni said in a statement. "The potential for disruption to employer-provided coverage should also be acknowledged and addressed. In addition, more consideration needs to be given to the cost of federally mandated investments in modernizing claims coding and the value of health plans’ programs to prevent fraud."

On the other hand: California-based Consumer Watchdog lamented the inclusion of several provisions in the regulation: 

• Inclusion of public health marketing campaigns as "health quality improvements"

• Excessive tax deductions

• Lack of transparency for administrative costs counted as "health quality improvements" 

• "Mini-med" plan exception

"The HHS rules are certainly not as bad as they could have been, considering the demands of the health insurance lobbyists who swarmed the agency," said Judy Dugan, research director of Consumer Watchdog. "But the industry will take every advantage of new tax deductions and the definition of 'health quality improvements' that can be counted as health care. HHS will have to focus its measurement and enforcement on these loopholes, and act to correct the regulations to stop abuses."

Report shows staggering cost of diabetes: More than 50 percent of Americans could have diabetes or prediabetes by 2020 — at a cost of $3.35 trillion over the next decade — if current trends continue, according to new analysis by UnitedHealth Group's Center for Health Reform & Modernization.

GOP fight for top health policy gavel mars transition: An acrimonious fight for the gavel of one of the House’s most powerful panels has marred an otherwise seamless transition for Republicans taking power of the chamber.

Republicans are jockeying fiercely for position in a race to lead the Energy and Commerce Committee — a battle that, at times, has resembled a GOP primary where candidates run to the right.

The stakes are high. Whoever holds the chairmanship will immediately become one of the driving forces behind the GOP’s push to "repeal and replace" the sweeping healthcare overhaul.

Government offers med-school loan help: Primary-care clinicians can apply for as much as $60,000 to help repay student loans if they serve for two years in medically underserved areas, the Department of Health and Human Services announced Monday.

The new application cycle for the National Health Service Corps' loan repayment program is financed by a $290 million investment in Democrats' healthcare reform law. The help is available to primary-care medical, dental and mental health clinicians.

Campaign wants 6,000 salad bars in schools: A coalition of farming interests and advocates for healthy nutrition launched a new initiative Monday that aims to put 6,000 salad bars in U.S. schools in the next three years. The campaign, "Let's Move Salad Bars to Schools," seeks to bolster first lady Michelle Obama's campaign against childhood obesity.

The founding partners of the initiative are the National Fruit and Vegetable Alliance, the United Fresh Produce Association Foundation, and the Food, Family, Farming Foundation. The group is trying to raise $15 million from corporations, foundations and the public.