OVERNIGHT HEALTH: Prevention fund on the chopping block

Lawmakers and stakeholders clashed over the prevention fund in President Obama’s healthcare law as the House prepares to repeal the fund Friday. Democratic leaders, returning to one of their favorite campaign themes, cast the vote as a step back for women’s health.

“Here they go again on women’s health,” Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) said. “By raiding a fund that’s going to provide breast cancer screening, cervical cancer screening, we know that they’re really not serious about trying to help people.”

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Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), on the other hand, noted that Democrats have previously agreed to cuts in the prevention fund, which started off at $15 billion.

“We’ve already taken $4 billion out of this fund. It was used to help pay for the payroll tax credit,” Boehner said Thursday. “Many Democrats voted for it. The president signed it into law. I think they’ve made clear what the precedent is there. They don’t believe this money is essential to their program. That’s why it’s being paid for here.”

Boehner wants to ax the prevention fund to pay for a bill keeping interest rates low on student loans. Although the bill only costs $6 billion, the GOP bill would repeal the entire $12 billion left in the prevention fund.

Senate Democrats focused on the healthcare cut to argue that Boehner’s bill is a non-starter in the upper chamber. The Hill has the story here.

Advocates mobilize: Healthcare advocates are also rallying — again — to the defense of the prevention fund, which has been on the chopping block repeatedly over the past two years.

“Voting to cut prevention funding is a vote in support of more chronic disease,” the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network said in a letter to lawmakers.

The American Lung Association also weighed in, calling the prevention cuts an “absurd choice” and saying it would “fiercely oppose” any attempt to steer money away from the fund. 

Sebelius, too: Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius told a House committee Thursday that cutting the 2010 healthcare law to pay for the student loan benefit extension would "doom" future generations to higher medical bills and worse care.

"We can educate our kids and invest in healthcare at the same time," she said at a hearing held by the House Education and Workforce Committee. "Failing to invest in long-term strategies that would lower our healthcare costs will doom future generations to pay higher and higher health bills and get mediocre results."

Healthwatch details the conflict here.

GOP presses on Innovation Center: Senate Republicans haven't gotten answers yet from a letter last November about how the new Medicare and Medicaid Innovation Center is using its money. They reiterated their concerns Thursday in a letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.

"We remain concerned that at a time of significant uncertainty for the fìscal health of the U.S. government, funds are being expended by the Innovation Center with little to no actual value provided," Sens. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.), Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) wrote.

They also noted that the Innovation Center has rolled out several big projects since their last request, including Pioneer Accountable Care Organizations. The letter is here.

HHS announces new rule on community-based care: States that choose to provide certain Medicare and Medicaid beneficiaries with community-based services will receive a 6 percent increase in federal matching funds, the Health and Human Services Department announced Thursday. The program is aimed at patients who would otherwise be admitted to a hospital or nursing home, an advisory said.

“We know that people frequently prefer to receive services in their own homes and communities whenever possible. The rule and demonstration announced today give people choice and provide states with flexibility to design programs that better meet the needs of beneficiaries,” Sebelius said in a statement.

HHS will also launch a new home-based care pilot program — Independence at Home — with 16 organizations participating. The effort will begin June 1, 2012, and continue for three years.

Report, retort: Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee released a report Thursday that says several large businesses are expecting to see their healthcare costs rise because of the Affordable Care Act. The report surveyed companies that are part of Obama’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness. Several members, including General Electric and Southwest Airlines, said they expect to see their costs rise because of the reform law’s benefit mandates and as taxes on the healthcare industry are passed on.

Democrats said the report was “fundamentally misleading,” and accused the GOP of ignoring companies’ responses if they didn’t fit with the party line. Healthwatch has more.

MLR rebates: Insurance companies will pay their customers roughly $1.3 billion in rebates this year because of the healthcare law’s medical loss ratio (MLR) provisions, the Kaiser Family Foundation said Thursday. The biggest rebates will be for large employers, while people in the individual market will see an average return of about $39.

“It’s now clear that the minimum medical loss ratio law has been a huge win for consumers,” Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) said in a statement.

The Healthwatch story is here.

Pre-existing conditions are common: Somewhere between 36 million and 112 million people in the United States have a pre-existing condition that an insurer could have used to deny them coverage, the Government Accountability Office said. Beginning in 2014, insurers won’t be allowed to deny coverage for pre-existing conditions, nor will they be able to charge higher prices based on existing illnesses. Healthwatch has more from GAO.

Stark asks for probe of alleged shakedowns: Rep. Pete Stark (D-Calif.) wrote to federal health regulators Thursday asking for an investigation of Accretive Health, a group whose approach to medical debt collection has been characterized as aggressive. A New York Times report Wednesday detailed a variety of tactics allegedly used by Accretive to get payments, including having debt collectors stop patients on their way into emergency rooms.

"This is corporate greed at its worse, abuse of patients' rights to dignity and privacy, and, I believe, a possible violation of several laws," Stark said in a statement Thursday.

Healthwatch has more here.

Friday's agenda

Today is the deadline for the Obama administration to answer House Republicans' concerns about the money the IRS is spending to implement healthcare reform. 

The House Ways and Means subcommittee on Health holds a hearing on Medicare premium support proposals.

State by state

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback (R) hit back at accusations that a state waiting list for Medicaid services might violate federal law, The Topeka Capital-Journal reported.

Infant mortality in the District of Columbia is at a historic low, The Washington Post reported.

Tobacco giants are donating millions to beat a tobacco tax initiative in California, the Bay Area News Group reported.

Patient advocates and law enforcement are at odds over access to state prescription drug databases, Stateline wrote.


Lobbying registrations


Lockridge Grindal Nauen / Twin City Pipe Trades Service Association

Bryan Cave / Centene Corporation

Bill tracker

Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) introduced legislation "to ensure the continued access of Medicare beneficiaries to diagnostic imaging services" (S. 2347).

Reading list

A new poll finds that Americans support reforming Medicare as long as they don't have to foot the bill, HealthDay reports.

Transplanted kidneys can be used more than once, according to a letter published in the New England Journal of Medicine. The Associated Press has the story.

The new CEO of Johnson & Johnson said problems related to the company's over-the-counter medicines will be his priority, The Wall Street Journal reports.

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