Health Roundup: House passes food safety, will vote on childhood nutrition Wednesday

Welcome to The Hill's early evening roundup of the day's health policy news and advance look at tomorrow's schedule.

On the agenda for Wednesday

Mini-meds under the microscope: Patient advocates plan to use a Senate Commerce Committee hearing Wednesday to urge lawmakers not to stop healthcare reforms that will make mini-meds unnecessary when all Americans get access to comprehensive health coverage.

The healthcare reform law’s medical-loss ratio (MLR) requirements dictate that health plans spend at least 80 percent of premiums on care (85 percent in the large-group market) or provide rebates to customers starting in 2012. This has been problematic for low-wage employers, who typically offer low-value “mini-med” plans — some providing as little as $2,000 in coverage per year.

Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), who championed MLR protections in the healthcare reform law, criticized special treatment offered to the mini-med plans in final regulations unveiled Nov. 22.

Advocates acknowledge that outlawing mini-med plans before new reforms take effect in 2014 would needlessly disrupt the market. But they also want lawmakers and the administration to require more transparency and progressively better benefits between now and then as a condition for mini-meds getting waivers from the healthcare reform law's medical-loss ratio and other consumer protections.

"A waiver should not be a free ride," said Stephen Finan, senior policy director at the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network.

Finan is expected to testify Wednesday that mini-med plans should be required to clearly explain to enrollees the limits of their coverage so they "don't realize the limits until they're already in treatment."

Federal regulators have already said that mini-med plans will have to file quarterly reports to the government to get the waivers, but Finan said enrollees should also get more information. He said he expects the administration to be "very attentive" to the hearing and advocates' concerns.

Childhood nutrition vote: Democratic House leaders said they will vote Wednesday on the Senate's $4.5 billion childhood nutrition bill, which is partially paid for by ending enhanced food-stamp funding in November 2013, five months earlier than scheduled. Democrats said they had “assurances” from the White House to work with Congress to restore the food-stamp funding, which was provided by last year’s Recovery Act

The Senate bill, championed by Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), expands eligibility for school meal programs, establishes nutrition standards for all foods sold in schools and provides a 6-cent increase for each school lunch to help cafeterias serve healthier meals. Until recently, the House had been considering its own $8 billion version of the bill.

Fiscal commission unveils final draft: A presidential commission charged with making recommendations to slash the U.S. deficit will unveil formal recommendations Wednesday after months of meetings and deliberation. However, commissioners on the 18-member panel have pushed back a vote on the proposals to Friday.

Moment of reflection: Public health advocates are renewing calls for individuals to get tested for HIV/AIDS in light of World AIDS Day on Wednesday.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a record high of nearly 83 million people have been tested for HIV in the United States. Planned Parenthood affiliates in 34 states and Washington, D.C., will organize more than 110 student events on high school and college campuses to highlight the global HIV/AIDS epidemic.

“On December 1, World AIDS Day, we will pause to reflect on the HIV epidemic in our country and around the world,” Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said in a statement. An estimated 1.1 million Americans are living with HIV, and one in five does not know it, the statement said.

Biosimilar hearing: At 10 a.m., the Brookings Institution will host a discussion on biosimilar entry in the United States and the government's role in regulating the process. Healthcare reform provided an abbreviated FDA approval pathway for off-brand versions of biotech drugs, known as biosimilars.

Tuesday’s health news

Dingell cites flaws in Senate food-safety bill: The author of the House’s food-safety bill has “remaining concerns” with the version passed Tuesday by the Senate but said “we cannot let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”

“The Senate bill makes improvements to FDA’s existing authorities to ensure the safety of the American food supply just as the House bill does,” Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) said in a statement to The Hill. “I commend my colleagues for their hard work over the past year and four months. However, there are some remaining concerns with the final Senate legislation and I need to review the final product now that it has passed the Senate.”

The Senate voted 73-25 for the bill, which calls for more frequent inspections at food-processing plants and gives the Food and Drug Administration broader authority in food-recall cases. Dingell’s bill easily passed the House, 283-142, in July 2009. He has been waiting for the Senate to take up the legislation and has criticized the upper chamber for being slow to act.

The House is expected to vote on the Senate version without the usual conference process because time is running out before this session of Congress ends.

Republicans favor two reform provisions: House Republicans’ plans to repeal healthcare reform will feature two popular provisions included in the reform law, incoming Republican Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said Monday night. A mandate barring discrimination of pre-existing conditions and a stipulation allowing young adults to remain on their parents’ insurance plans until age 26 would be included in a GOP healthcare bill at the same time repeal efforts are under way, Cantor said in a speech to American University students.

Cantor stressed that while he supports full repeal of the current law, Republicans share some of the same goals as Democrats, although they propose different ways of achieving them.

Anti-abortion group warns against Upton: The Americans United for Life Action became the latest national anti-abortion-rights group to warn against selecting Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) as chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee. The group said his “record of opposition to pro-life values is clear.”

According to the AULA letter sent to the Hill Tuesday, Upton has “voted against such common-sense policies as parents being notified if their minor child seeks an abortion at a federally funded facility, voted in favor of obstructing the partial-birth abortion ban and voted to allow the federal funding of embryo-destructive research.”

The National Right to Life Committee and the Susan B. Anthony List have already come out against Upton, who is facing the House’s most contentious chairmanship race.

CMS staff announcements: Two weeks after the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) launched an innovation center to improve care and cut costs, the agency announced new roles for key staffers Monday evening to accommodate the new office.

Julie Boughn, who had been serving as the chief information officer and director of the Office of Information Services, will join the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation as the acting deputy director, serving under acting director Richard Gilfillan. Tony Trenkle will head OIS, while Karen Tudel moves up to the top spot in the Office of E-Health Standards and Services.

Around the Web

HMO rates see big increase: HMO premium rates will increase 9.8 percent in 2011, the largest increase in five years, according to a study released Tuesday by Aon Hewitt Inc.

SCOTUS leaning against California: The Supreme Court appeared ready Tuesday to approve an order requiring California to move thousands of inmates out of overcrowded prisons in order to provide adequate healthcare to the remaining prisoners, the Associated Press reports.

Blue Cross payment experiment: Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota, the state’s largest health insurer, is trying a new approach to paying for healthcare that relies on incentive payment agreements with large hospitals and clinics systems, according to the Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal.
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