Health Roundup: 'Doc fix' clears Senate

Senate passes one-month "doc fix": The short-term delay to a pending 23 percent cut in Medicare physician payments passed unanimously. The House is expected to take it up after the Thanksgiving recess, right before the cuts take effect Dec. 1. 

The patch is paid for by using $1 billion from a 20 percent cut in payments for outpatient therapy services. The bill removes from those payments the overall pool of money known as the Physician Fee Schedule, prompting speculation that doctors' groups would oppose it, but that hasn't happened so far. http://bit.ly/cZd9fw

American Medical Association praises patch: The largest physician lobbying group on Thursday applauded passage of the fix, especially because the deal's brokers — Sens. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) — have promised to work toward a long-term fix. 

"The Senate's action today to stop the Medicare cut for one month will help avert a health care access crisis for seniors that would have begun in just two weeks," AMA President Cecil Wilson said in a statement. "This is a short-term reprieve, and the AMA is urging Congress to pass a one-year fix as soon as they return from the Thanksgiving holiday." http://bit.ly/dln0G1

Food-safety bill delayed: The Senate will vote on food-safety legislation when it returns from the Thanksgiving recess, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said Thursday. The bipartisan bill is expected to pass after lawmakers agreed to exemptions for small farmers sponsored by Sens. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and Kay Hagan (D-N.C.). http://bit.ly/bMzuPV

To help the bill along, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) will get a vote on two amendments, reports The Associated Press: The first would place a moratorium on spending for "earmarks," pet projects in lawmakers' states and districts, while the second is a separate amendment that is a substitute for the food-safety bill. http://wapo.st/bTsDe6

Produce industry blasts Tester/Kagan deal: Twenty industry groups representing produce growers wrote to Senate leaders Thursday blasting the small-farm exemption. They say it's based on bias against industrial farms rather than science.

"Comments from Senator Tester and supporters are now making it abundantly clear that their cause is not to argue that small farms pose less risk, but to wage an ideological war against the vast majority of American farmers that seeks to feed 300 million Americans," the letter says. "We are appalled at statements by Senator Tester reported today in the Capital Press that 'Small producers are not raising a commodity, but are raising food. Industrial agriculture,' he said, 'takes the people out of the equation." http://bit.ly/cKzBQU

HHS unveils guidance on state health exchanges: The document outlines the principles and priorities of HHS on the issue of Exchanges, describes the statutory requirements found in the health reform law and includes areas where states can expect federal guidance and areas where states will be expected to make decisions. HHS notes that federal regulatory guidance will be made available in the spring of 2011. http://bit.ly/baZ2V8

McConnell and 32 Republicans join health reform legal challenge: Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and 32 other GOP senators filed a brief on Thursday in favor of a court case challenging healthcare reform. http://bit.ly/aKLfNd

Report faults hospital consolidation for payment variations: A new report from the Center for Studying Health System Change finds that the average inpatient hospital payment rates of four large national insurers ranged from 147 percent to 210 percent of Medicare rates in eight major healthcare markets. Some hospitals command almost five times what Medicare pays for inpatient services and more than seven times what Medicare pays for outpatient care.  

"Wide variation in private insurer payment rates to hospitals and physicians across and within local markets," the reports says, "suggests that some providers, particularly hospitals, have significant market power to negotiate higher-than-competitive prices." http://bit.ly/d9fvil

Report advocates more patient control over spending: "Not all health care prices are rising," says the report from the free-market National Center for Policy Analysis. "Although health care inflation is robust for those services paid by third-party insurance, prices are rising only moderately for services patients buy directly." http://bit.ly/bvrv12