Healthcare Friday

Health panels prepare for shake-up: As the House panels of jurisdiction over healthcare get ready for a switch in leadership, a number of Republicans are making their moves to claim top spots. 

Most of the attention has been on the Energy and Commerce Committee, where ranking member Joe Barton (R-Texas) hopes to overcome his government "shake-down" remark regarding BP to claim the chairmanship. Barton says the four years he was ranking member should not count against the six-year limit for chairmanships imposed by Republican rules, but the leadership seems to be taking a different view.

Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) is seen as leadership's favorite to take over the panel, but some question whether he's conservative enough when the Tea Party is ascendant. On top of that, another GOP Michigander — Rep. Dave Camp — is all but certain to take over the other "A" committee, Ways and Means. Conservative Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.) has said he'll run for the spot if the Barton is denied a waiver. 

This week, Barton appealed directly to newly elected conservative Republicans to vote for him. "Over the past four years, as Ranking Member of the Committee on Energy and Commerce, I have led the charge against radical cap-and-trade legislation, fought the new entitlements and mandates that are the rotten core of President Obama’s health care law, and consistently applied free market principles to legislative decisions," he writes in his letter. "If this sounds like a speech, well, it is. One of the first major decisions waiting for you in Washington is deciding who will be the leaders of the next Congress. I’m supporting John Boehner for speaker. I also hope to participate, myself, as chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee. I’ll need the support of people like you who are coming to Washington with change on their minds and determination in their hearts."

At least one member seems already to support Barton's bid. Oregon Rep. Greg Walden (R) was overheard at a GOP election night party telling Barton, "Come on backstage, Mr. Chairman!"

Shimkus or Upton could also take over the panel's powerful health subcommittee if they don't get the whole committee (Shimkus is currently the ranking member on health).

On Ways and Means, the only question is who gets the health subpanel. Rep. Wally Herger (Calif.) is the current ranking member and will automatically get to head the subcommittee if he so desires. There's been no indication that Herger would turn it down, but if he does sources say possible contenders include Reps. Charles Boustany (La.), Peter Roskam (Ill.) and Paul Ryan (Wis.). Conservative Rep. Tom Price (Texas), a doctor, is seen as likely to join the Ways and Means panel, but he probably wouldn't get the health chairmanship right off the bat.

Appropriations pulls the strings: While legislating panels will get much of the attention as they hold hearings on the healthcare reform law and debate repeal bills, the real power may well reside with appropriations panels. Already, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) has warned that efforts to defund the bill will hit a brick wall in his Appropriations health subpanel.

But Republicans will still go full steam ahead with those efforts in the House. The health subpanel will seek a new chairman after ranking member Todd Tiahrt (Kan.) lost his primary to Jerry Moran. Several ranking members on lesser subpanels could have a shot, but some sources suggest Republicans might want a woman's touch as it makes the case for defunding healthcare reform and push-back against the inevitable accusations of heartlessness.

Possible contenders: Rep. Kay Granger (Texas), the ranking member on the subcommittee on state, foreign operations and related programs. And Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, the ranking member on the financial services and general government subpanel, can claim the to have the support of the 71 percent of Missourians who voted to reject the law's individual mandate in the August primary.

Healthcare reform lawsuit moves forward: Motions for summary judgments were filed Thursday night in the national lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the healthcare reform law's individual mandate. The lawsuit was brought by 20 states and the National Federation of Independent Business; oral arguments will be held Dec. 16.

"Voters across the country signaled their distaste for the new healthcare law this week," Karen Harned, executive director of the National Federation of Independent Business's Small Business Legal Center, said in a statement. "They understand that it is fundamentally un-American for our government to force individuals to purchase a product from a private party against their will, and they strongly signaled that they don’t want the federal government to have this much power over their individual decisions. These are key issues at stake in the national lawsuit against the healthcare law brought by NFIB and 20 states. 

Separately, as many as six of the 11 states — including Wisconsin, Oklahoma and Wyoming —that switched to Republican governors Tuesday night are considering joining the lawsuit, reports The Wall Street Journal. It might be too late, though.

Medicare premiums set: The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) has set the Medicare premiums, deductibles and co-insurance amounts to be paid by Medicare beneficiaries in 2011. Premiums for about 10 percent of seniors will increase by 4.4 percent, explains Forbes.

Prevention regulations move forward: CMS released a final rule that implements portions of the healthcare reform law that provide greater access to Medicare’s coverage of preventive services. 

As a result of the new healthcare reform law, beginning on Jan. 1, people on traditional Medicare will no longer have to pay a co-pay, co-insurance or deductible to receive preventive services that are recommended with a grade A or B by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force. The law does not require Medicare Advantage plans to cover these services without cost-sharing, but many plans already do so. 

The rule also implements an annual wellness visit, a new benefit under Medicare, for which Medicare consumers will pay nothing out of pocket. During this yearly visit, doctors can update a patient’s care plan, screen for cognitive impairments, and measure height, weight and blood pressure, as well as other needed measurements based on the person’s family and medical history. 

"To have preventive services available at no cost to people with Medicare is not only an improvement to the Medicare program, but also encourages both providers and patients to think about healthcare in a new way," said Joe Baker, president of the Medicare Rights Center. "By encouraging people to take steps to prevent illness, the law promotes efficient, higher-quality, patient-centered care."

Examples of Medicare-covered preventive services that will no longer require people to pay out of pocket include: screening mammographies, tests such as colonoscopies and barium enemas to screen for colorectal cancer, and Pap tests to screen for cervical cancer.