Health Roundup: Michelle Obama nutrition bill on the way to president

Welcome to The Hill's evening roundup of the day's health policy news and advance look at tomorrow's schedule.

Thursday's health news:

Childhood nutrition bill clears Congress: President Barack Obama is expected to shortly sign into law childhood nutrition legislation backed by his wife Michelle after the bill easily cleared the House, 264 to 157, on Thursday. The bill unanimously passed the Senate in August.

The $4.5 billion bill was introduced by Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.). It expands eligibility for school meals programs, establishes nutrition standards for all foods sold in schools and provides a 6-cent increase for each school lunch to help cafeterias serve healthier meals. http://bit.ly/hQUJVl

Vilsack applauds bill: Children's and health advocates applauded passage of the bill, as did Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack: "This is an historic victory for our nation's youngsters," Vilsack said in a statement. "This legislation will allow USDA, for the first time in over 30 years, the chance to make real reforms to the school lunch and breakfast programs by improving the critical nutrition and hunger safety net for millions of children." http://bit.ly/gyBF0Q

Food safety on life support: Food safety legislation faced new challenges Thursday a day after House leaders made it clear they couldn't take up the Senate-passed bill because it contains tax provisions that by law must originate in the House. Instead, the House would pass its own bill with the pay-fors and send it to the Senate to approve.

Produce industry wants House to remove small farmers exemption: Twenty-three organizations representing the fruit and vegetable industry wrote a letter to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Speaker-designate John Boehner (R-Ohio) on Wednesday urging them to use the delay to scrap the Senate's exemption for small farmers.

"The discrepancies between the House and Senate versions of this bill are too significant to ignore, and steps must be taken to resolve those differences," said Robert Guenther, senior vice president of public policy at United Fresh, one of the 23 groups. "Specifically, the amendment added by Senator Jon Tester alters this bill from one based on science and risk to one based on political ideology, undermining the effectiveness of the entire legislation."

Former HHS secretary says pay should reflect care quality: In a blog post for The Hill Thursday morning, former HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson said the debt commission's healthcare proposals fail to incentivize better patient outcomes, which must the be cornerstone of any cost-cutting effort. 

"The only way to impact the growth in the Medicare system -- and also not destroy it in the process -- is to fundamentally realign the incentives of the providers in the delivery system," Thompson and Wisconsin Hospital Association president Steve Brenton wrote. http://bit.ly/hVBWPu

Cancer group warns of impending SGR disaster: A national survey of oncology practices by the Community Oncology Alliance warns of an "absolute disaster" for cancer patients if a scheduled 25 percent cut to Medicare payments is allowed to go into effect on Jan. 1. Sens. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) are currently working on a one-year "fix" to the Sustainable Growth Rate that they've vowed to have ready before the end of the year.

The findings:

• 82% of oncology practices surveyed are likely to reduce or stop seeing Medicare patients; 

• 82% of practices are very likely or somewhat likely to reduce clinical or operational staff;

• 43% of practices are likely or somewhat likely to lose or reduce number of oncologists;

• 67% of practices are likely to terminate private pay contracts tied to Medicare; and

• 58% of practices are very likely or somewhat likely to close some of their facilities.

Medicare stays strong - for now: The Medicare Payment Advisory Commission's (MedPAC) annual survey of access to physician services found that 83 percent of Medicare patients seeking care for illness or injury reported "never" having to wait longer than desired to see a doctor, compared to 80 percent for privately insured Americans between the ages of 50 and 64. Similarly, of the Medicare patients seeking a new primary care physician in 2010, 79 percent reported no problem in finding a physician compared to 69 percent for privately insured patients.

"These results are a tribute to the professionalism of America’s physicians," House Energy and Commerce Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) said in a statement. "They continue to see to the needs of their Medicare patients despite their justifiable frustration with Congress’s inability to stabilize the physician payment system. In return, in order to continue to maintain the ability of Medicare patients and military families to see their doctors, it's essential that the 111th Congress act to provide certainty in physician payments."

Unreasonable rates go unnoticed:
Vigilance of unreasonable premium hikes may be lax in some states despite their robust authority to review and approve rates, according to a new Kaiser Family Foundation study. Many states may only disapprove rates in select situations, such as for certain insurers or products, the study found. Further, many states not have enough staff to review all filed rates, and some automatically approve rates if they are not reviewed within a month or two.

The healthcare reform law gives the federal government new power to examine “unreasonable increases” in premiums charged for some individual and small group health plans. http://bit.ly/iiVmfS

On the agenda for Friday: 

Debt panel vote looming: President Obama's deficit panel is expected to shoot down in flames Friday its final recommendations released Wednesday, with only nine members expected to vote "yes." Calling a reduction in federal health spending the country's greatest fiscal challenge, the panel included a number of healthcare-related items, such as developing a permanent fix to the Medicare payment structure for doctors, reforming or repealing a new long-term insurance plan and taxing employer health benefits. In order for it to be considered by Congress, 14 of 18 panel members must approve the plan.

Republicans are split on the recommendations: Only three of the six Republicans on the panel say they'll approve the recommendations, the others raise issues with proposed tax increases and the lack of solutions to sky-rocketing healthcare spending. http://bit.ly/hW8VC1

So are Democrats: Senate Budget Chair Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) and House Budget Chair John Spratt (D-S.C.) are likely "yes" votes, but Senate Finance Chair Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and Reps. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) and Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.) are "nos". http://bit.ly/gtvfz5

Department seeking ACO feedback: Comments are due Friday on proposed regulations implementing policies and standards that will apply to accountable care organizations under healthcare reform. Comments can be filed at regulations.gov

The docs' lobby has already commented: The American Medical Association recommends a range of specific new payment methods that regulators should consider in addition to shared savings, including an accountable medical home payment system and bundled payments for specific medical conditions, such as congestive heart failure. Other recommendations include increased access to loans and grants for small physician practices, easing of antitrust restrictions that prevent physicians from collaborating and timely access to quality data. http://bit.ly/eDVR1h

MedPAC, Day 2: The Medicare Payment Advisory Commission Advisory Committee Meeting resumes at 8:15 a.m. at the Reagan Building. http://bit.ly/9glbpU

High-value healthcare on the agenda: The nonprofit National Committee for Quality Assurance holds a one-day conference Friday focusing on what health reform will mean for quality improvement and related programs for health plans, medical homes and accountable care organizations. http://bit.ly/gZoUww

Health records discussed: The Office of National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC) hosts a free day-long public roundtable on "Personal Health Records — Understanding the Evolving Landscape." http://bit.ly/bBK0jy

Around the Web

ACO feedback coming: The Justice Department will quickly review ACOs for antitrust concerns, a representative of the department’s antitrust division told a House judiciary subcommittee Wednesday, Bloomberg reports. http://bit.ly/eM5wSA

Connecticut gets on board: The Obama administration is working closely with Connecticut's newly elected Democratic governor to implement the healthcare reform law, the Connecticut Mirror reports. http://bit.ly/exkZmd

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Julian Pecquet : jpecquet@thehill.com / 202-628-8527

Jason Millman : jmillman@thehill.com / 202-628-8351