OVERNIGHT HEALTH: GOP, abortion-rights groups look toward 2012

The GOP field squares off again Wednesday on CNBC. And the debate is explicitly focused on the economy, so healthcare seems like a natural fit. Both Romney and Texas Gov. Rick Perry have proposed block-granting Medicaid and transitioning at least part of the Medicare system to private insurance. Their Medicare proposals would cut down on federal healthcare spending, but they might also raise costs for seniors.

Abortion remains controversial: Abortion-rights supporters say it’s Democrats’ turn to use the abortion issue as a political wedge. New polling released by NARAL Pro-Choice America suggests that a focus on abortion rights could help President Obama recover some of the female “defectors” who don’t plan to vote for him a second time. Healthwatch’s Sam Baker has more on the findings.

Tax concerns: Grover Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform called reports that the group is opposed to legislation scrapping the healthcare law's insurance subsidies "premature at best and irresponsible journalism at worst."

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Healthwatch reported Tuesday that Norquist would have concerns with the bill from Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-Mont.) if it's scored as a tax increase. The story, however, did not say Norquist's group opposes the bill.

"I met yesterday with members of Congressman Rehberg's staff to discuss their bill," Tax Policy Director Ryan Ellis wrote Wednesday. "As with any legislation that impacts the tax code, I was interested to confirm that the bill would not score out as a net tax increase. Congressman Rehberg's staff told me that while they do not have a score from [the Congressional Budget Office] or [Joint Committee on Taxation], they are confident that their bill will not score out as a net tax increase. Should they be supervised by a score, they committed to improving the bill to ensure that no net tax increase occurs."

Insurance oversight: Insurance companies are under assault on multiple fronts as consumer advocates demand that regulators deliver on the tougher oversight promised by the federal healthcare reform law.

Consumers Union on Wednesday sent the White House a letter demanding that the administration require simple, standardized health insurance forms starting next year, as called for in the law. And Consumer Watchdog filed a ballot initiative in California that would "make health insurance companies open their books and publicly justify, under penalty of perjury, proposed rate changes before they take effect." Healthwatch has more.

We’re not so different after all: For all the differences between the U.S. and British healthcare systems, they share a common problem — outcomes. U.K. Secretary of State for Health Andrew Lansley was in Washington on Wednesday to talk about his goals for the country’s single-payer system, and his top priority sounded a lot like one of the United States's main goals. The U.K. is trying to move toward a payment system that rewards high-quality care, rather than paying for quantity, Lansley said. He also described the country’s effort to focus on prevention and make better use of electronic health records in an effort to coordinate patients’ care. Sound familiar?

Lansley went out of his way to emphasize the commonality between the two countries, but he did stand up for single-payer, albeit delicately — he said most British patients can get an appointment within 24 hours, implicitly answering U.S. Republicans’ charge that single-payer leads to long waits. Lansley also said citizens understand the value of their healthcare services and don’t seek out unnecessary care just because its free.

Recusal revived: The conservative legal group Judicial Crisis Network is out with a fresh reminder of the questions surrounding Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan and her role in lawsuits over the healthcare reform law. Kagan was solicitor general when the Office of the Solicitor General started preparing for the legal challenges, prompting conservatives’ calls for her to recuse herself from the case as a justice. Healthwatch has more on the latest push.

Sorry, try again: Open-government advocates are not satisfied with the Health Resources and Services Administration’s attempt to reinstate a public database of healthcare errors. HRSA angered journalists and transparency watchdogs when it pulled down a once-public database of disciplinary actions against doctors, and tried to quell the outcry Wednesday by restoring public access to the records. But HRSA also added conditions that critics say are unreasonable and unfounded.

“HRSA is overreaching and interpreting the law in a way that restricts the use of the information much more than the law specifies. ... This agency needs to remember that half of all health care dollars in the United States comes from taxpayers, so the interpretation of the law ought to be for public benefit,” Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) said in a statement.

Skeptical advocates: The AIDS Healthcare Foundation expressed its "skepticism" at the Obama administration's public commitment to an "AIDS-free generation." Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Tuesday the goal is within reach thanks to advancements in prevention and treatment.

"To date, the Obama administration has not fully supported efforts to combat global AIDS," AHF President Michael Weinstein said in a statement. "It has flat funded AIDS budgets and assigned AIDS a lower priority, focusing time, effort, and money away from this President [George W.] Bush-created initiative towards its own, 'Global Health Initiative.' Given this previous lack of commitment, and the vagueness of this new proposal, while we hope for the best, we remain concerned that this is more an exercise in public relations."

Audit-less: Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, is demanding tougher oversight of a federal drug discount program after learning that it hasn't undergone a single comprehensive audit since its beginning in 1992. Healthwatch has more.

Unclaimed credits: The Ways and Means Oversight panel has announced it's holding a hearing next week on the federal healthcare law's small-business tax credits. The hearing comes as the administration has been defending the credits against a report that they've been claimed by far fewer businesses than predicted.


Thursday's Agenda

The Supreme Court reviews challenges to the healthcare reform law as it weighs which issues to rule on next year.

The Senate HELP Committee holds a hearing on the role of delivery system reforms in lowering healthcare costs. Witnesses include deputy CMS administrator Jonathan Blum, Rhode Island Health Insurance Commissioner Chris Koller and several medical center officials. 


Bill Tracker

The Energy and Commerce Health panel will mark up legislation repealing the healthcare law's long-term-care CLASS Act next week.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) has legislation to reauthorize certain public health preparedness provisions and authorize $56 million per year for the next five years for HHS to pay claims.


State by State

California is dismantling its prescription drug monitoring program to save money despite a surge in prescription drug deaths nationwide.

Florida has delayed plans to privatize prison healthcare amid vendors' concerns.

Minnesota starts crafting its health insurance exchange.


Fraud Fight

A patient recruiter at a Miami healthcare agency pleaded guilty to participating in a $25 million home health Medicare fraud scheme.

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Vanguard Health Care agreed to pay $2 million to settle charges of double-billing Medicare and Tennessee's Medicaid program, among other false claims allegations.


Reading List

The FDA recorded 150 recalls in the third quarter of 2011, up from 97 in the second quarter — evidence of the increased oversight of U.S. drug manufacturing plants, reports The Scientist magazine.


What you might have missed on Healthwatch

Former HHS secretary Thompson urges Obama to appoint stem cell commission

'Personhood' measure fails in Mississippi

Ohio voters reject health insurance mandate


Comments / complaints / suggestions? Please let us know:

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

Sam Baker: sbaker@thehill.com / 202-628-8351


Follow us on Twitter @hillhealthwatch

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