OVERNIGHT HEALTH: Berwick touts Medicare Advantage numbers

The healthcare reform law, beating the Medicare actuary's predictions, has so far strengthened the privately-run Medicare Advantage program, Medicare chief Don Berwick testified on Thursday. Enrollment is up six percent while premiums are down six percent, Berwick told the House Ways and Means Committee.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services actuary had predicted that Medicare Advantage enrollment would drop 7.4 million over the next few years - starting this year - and that premiums would rise. Berwick said the initial results show that the prediction was incorrect. "I have the facts on the ground before me now," Berwick said. "The facts are that Medicare Advantage is looking stronger and stronger."

Can it keep up?: Berwick said he doesn’t know how long Medicare Advantage plans will continue to grow. “It looks like the industry thinks there’s a good future for Medicare Advantage,” he said, adding that he hopes it will keep expanding or at least stabilize.

High-risk enrollment low: If Medicare Advantage was the good news for the Department of Health and Human Services on Thursday, then high-risk insurance pool enrollment was the bad. Enrollment over the past three months is up 50 percent to 12,000 - well short of the 375,000 originally predicted by the end of 2010. HHS said the low enrollment is consisent with the experience of the Children's Health Insurance Program, and they unveiled new tools on Thursday to help boost the high-risk program's visibility.

Berwick hopes rationing talk over: After the Ways and Means hearing Thursday, Berwick said he hopes that he's been able to put fears of healthcare rationing to rest. Since his nomination last year, Republicans have accused him of supporting rationing based on favorable comments he made about the British healthcare system. Berwick said that his statements had been taken out of context.

Camp not satisfied: When asked if Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.) was satisfied with Berwick's remarks about healthcare rationing, a committee spokesperson said: "No, not satisfied with the rationing response, because it's one of two answers. Either yes, you are still in love with [British National Health Service], or no, you are still not in love with the NHS."

Utah wants waiver... but not the kind that more than half the states is seeking. Republican Gov. Gary Herbert told the Heritage Foundation Thursday that his state wants permission to charge high-income Medicaid beneficiaries higher co-pays. Meanwhile, other states are asking HHS for the flexibility to toughen Medicaid eligibility requirements as they try to cut massive budget deficits. 

Stearns wants Sebelius to explain Planned Parenthood funding: Following the release of undercover Planned Parenthood videos that are grabbing headlines, Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.), who heads the Energy and Commerce oversight subpanel, said he will call on HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to testify about federal funding for the organization. Planned Parenthood said the videos, which apparently show employees coaching undercover actors on how to obtain abortions for underage sex workers, are heavily doctored. However, the organization fired an employee who appeared in one of the videos.

Repeal's repeat act: Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told the Conservative Political Action Conference he will continue to fight for repeal.

Republicans seize on CBO comments: Congressional Budget Office Director Doug Elmendorf testified Thursday that the reform law would lead to a reduction of 800,000 jobs over the next 10 years, and it didn't take long for Republicans to circulate the comments. Elmendorf's testimony is hardly news, though. Elmendorf first made the claim in August, saying more people would stay out of the workforce because they have better healthcare options available to them.

Oversight for insurance oversight: The Energy and Commerce Committee announced Thursday it will hold a hearing on the new Center for Consumer Information and Insurance Oversight on Wednesday, Feb. 16. Republicans on the panel last month pressed HHS for details on the office’s recent shift into CMS. 

IRS recognizes breastfeeding: The Internal Revenue Service ruled Thursday that breast pumps and breastfeeding supplies are medical expenses that can be reimbursed through flexible spending accounts.

Salmonella victims want justice: Victims of the 2009 salmonella outbreak are calling on the Department of Justice to bring criminal charges against former Peanut Corporation of America chief executive Stewart Parnell.

Friday's agenda:

Cutting healthcare: After going back to the drawing board on Thursday, the House Appropriations Committee is expected to unveil a spending bill that will cut $100 billion. The committee already made headlines by announcing it would eliminate all Title X funding for low-income individuals for the rest of the year. Budgets for the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are already on the chopping block.

Abortion markup: The Energy and Commerce health subcommittee will hold a 9 a.m. markup for four healthcare bills, incuding the Protect Life Act (H.R. 358) that would ban abortion funds in the healthcare reform law. Other bills on the docket include: the Veterinary Public Health Workforce and Education Act (H.R. 525); the Neglected Infections of Impoverished Americans Act (H.R. 528); and the Dental Emergency Responder Act (H.R. 570).

Reading list:

The Washington Post talks to Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin, who wants to establish a single-payer system in his state. 

Former Gov. Mitt Romney may face backlash from conservatives Friday because of his state's individual mandate, according to McClatchy Newspapers.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is promising a huge fight against the GOP over their abortion agenda, the Washington Post writes.

Florida may cut optional Medicaid services, the Associated Press reports.

Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.) claims that Republicans "always hated Medicare," the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reports.

Several states are considering new abortion restrictrions, Reuters reports

Fun fact: There's a new Twitter account tracking Medicare chief Don Berwick.

What you might have missed on Healthwatch:

Former President Bush adviser Karl Rove told Republicans they should use reconciliation to undo the reform law. 

Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) said Republicans are showing their "true colors" through their anti-abortion agenda. 

HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius denounces "government takeover" claims.

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

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