Health Roundup: Medicare under a microscope

The spotlight's on Medicare today, with the announcement of a new office and the release of the long-awaited testimony from CMS Administrator Don Berwick.

This morning, the Department of Health and Human Services holds a conference call with Berwick to announce the introduction of the new Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation, created by the health reform law. The center's acting director, Richard Gilfillan, will also be on the call.

The center's role is to test innovative approaches to improving healthcare delivery, payment and quality to lower costs while increasing quality. It gets $5 billion in start-up funds under the new law and $10 billion over the next 10 years for demonstrations.

It has the potential to be the "crown jewel" of the reform law, Berwick said at a Brooking Institution event last month.

More from Berwick: He'll testify Wednesday that the Democrats' healthcare law does not ration care nor cut guaranteed Medicare benefits, according to his prepared remarks.

"The Affordable Care Act does not prescribe a 'one size fits all' approach to health care," Berwick says in prepared remarks obtained by The Hill, "because health care is first and foremost about caring for unique individuals."

Berwick, who is well-regarded by most healthcare experts, has been a lightning rod for Republicans since passage of the health reform law, in part because of his past statements in favor of Great Britain's socialized National Health System. Wednesday morning's hearing before the Senate Finance Committee will be the first opportunity Republicans have to grill him since his July recess appointment.

Medicare patients at risk: Almost one in seven - 13.5 percent - hospitalized Medicare patients experience a serious "adverse event" during their hospital stay, according to a new report from the Office of Inspector General for the Department of Health and Human Services. And another 13.5 percent suffer temporary harm.

Amendment to grandfathered plans: HHS on Monday amended its regulations on grandfathered plans, which allow employers to retain their existing coverage without meeting some of the new requirements of the health reform law. The amendment, according to a summary from the industry group America's Health Insurance Plans, "provides additional flexibility for fully-insured grandfathered group health plans to change carriers without relinquishing the plan's special status under (the health reform law)."

The regulations allow an employer to change the third-party administrator for its self-funded group health plan. But the amendment doesn't apply to the individual market, where a change of carrier will still relinquish grandfather status. 

Fight brewing over birth control: The Institute of Medicine meets today to decide what qualifies as preventive care for women. The findings could have  repercussions on which services health plans must cover free of charge under the new health reform law, and Planned Parenthood and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops are expected to make dueling cases.

Health reform debate 'wound to church's unity': So says the outgoing head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, according to Catholic News Service. American Catholics were sharply divided about whether President Obama's executive order went far enough in blocking taxpayer-funded abortion in the bill. 

In his final address as president of the conference, Cardinal Francis E. George of Chicago also criticized those who define the church's usefulness by whether it provides "foot soldiers for a political commitment, whether of the left or the right."

Budget bill could hinder attempt to defund health law: Conservative Republicans are worried that Democrats could use the lame-duck session to disable one of their most potent weapons against the healthcare reform law.

When lawmakers return this week for the lame-duck session, they'll have to decide on a budget to keep the government's doors open until next year. Democrats could try to pass an omnibus spending bill that funds the healthcare reform bill into the future, making it more difficult for House Republicans to starve the law of cash when they're in the majority next year.

Leading House Tea Partier OK with pending food-related bills: Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), a favorite of the Tea Party, told The Hill on Monday she expects newly energized Republicans will support Democrats' childhood nutrition and food safety bills, which are expected to come up during the lame-duck session.

Bachmann made the comments right after an event organized by the conservative group Americans for Prosperity that called on lawmakers "not to pass any new legislation from the Left's agenda in the Lame Duck session." The two bills have broad bipartisan support but Tea Party concerns with government intrusion had raised the possibility that conservatives could be potential spoilers.

Ban called on alcoholic energy drinks: Connecticut Attorney General — and Senator-elect — Richard Blumenthal (D) is asking the Food and Drug Administration to "do the right thing" and ban alcoholic energy drinks.

In a letter to FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg, Blumenthal says the agency should quickly wrap up its investigation into whether the drinks meet the FDA's Generally Recognized As Safe standard. The investigation started in November 2009, and since then, Blumenthal and others have argued that scientific and medical evidence proves they don't meet that standard.

"Alcoholic energy beverages are a witch's brew of stimulants and alcohol, creating wide-awake, energized drunks who pose a serious threat to themselves and others," he writes.