First Edition: December 20, 2012

Today's early morning highlights from the major news organizations, including news about the efforts to reach a deal on curbing the federal deficit.

Kaiser Health News: Health Insurance Executive: 'Incorporating All The New Regulations' Will Be Challenge In 2013
Kaiser Health News reporters Alvin Tran and Sarah Barr write: "As chairman and CEO, Bruce Bodaken led Blue Shield of California to become one of the fastest growing health plans in the state – it currently has more than 3 million members. But after 12 years of service, the 61-year-old recently announced his plans to retire at the end of 2012. ... Bodaken's views on the health law and the current state of the insurance industry were among the many topics during a recent interview with Kaiser Health News" (Tran and Barr, 12/19).

The New York Times: Obama And Boehner Diverge Sharply On Fiscal Plan
Hopes for a broad deficit-reduction agreement faded on Wednesday as President Obama insisted he had offered Republicans “a fair deal” while Speaker John A. Boehner moved for a House vote as early as Thursday on a scaled-down plan to limit tax increases to yearly incomes of $1 million and up, despite Senate opposition and Mr. Obama’s veto threat (Calmes and Weisman, 12/19).

The Washington Post: ‘Cliff’ Standoff: Boehner Works To Wrangle Votes For ‘Plan B’; Obama Threatens Veto
House GOP leaders scrambled to rally their members Wednesday behind a plan to extend tax cuts on income up to $1 million, defying President Obama’s veto threat and setting up a showdown that could send Washington over the year-end “fiscal cliff.” ... If Boehner’s limited proposal were to be enacted, the economy would still take a hit: Jobless benefits would begin to expire for the long-term unemployed; physicians with elderly patients would see a sharp drop in Medicare reimbursements; and $100 billion in across-the-board cuts to federal agencies would begin (Kane and Helderman, 12/19).

The Wall Street Journal: Boehner's 'Plan B' Gets Pushback
House Republicans hustled Wednesday to build support for a fallback proposal that would eliminate most of the tax impact of the "fiscal cliff," providing a test of Speaker John Boehner's leadership as the year-end deadline approached. ... Some lawmakers suggested the Obama-Boehner budget negotiations—currently stalled—could resume if Plan B passes the House. Messrs. Boehner and Obama still appear to want a broader deal than Plan B, which doesn't address across-the-board spending cuts set to take effect next year and does little for the budget's long-term problems, such as health-care costs (Favole and Palette, 12/19).

Los Angeles Times: Boehner Seeks Support For Tax Increase On The Wealthiest
As President Obama and House Speaker John A. Boehner took turns blaming each other for the sudden lull in the budget talks, the action continued off-camera Wednesday as the Ohio Republican focused on building support from his conservative majority to increase tax rates on the wealthy. ... Conservatives railed against Boehner's proposal, which he calls Plan B, as an affront to the party's core values, but Boehner received a crucial lifeline Wednesday from Grover Norquist. The influential anti-tax activist's Americans for Tax Reform said voting for the measure would not violate the pledge most GOP lawmakers had taken not to raise taxes (Mascaro, Parsons and Memoli, 12/19).

The Associated Press: Medicare Premiums Could Rise For Many Retirees
It’s a health care change that President Barack Obama and Republicans both embrace: Expand a current, little-known law so more retirees the government considers well-off are required to pay higher Medicare premiums. That plan is likely to be part of any budget deal to reduce the overhang of federal debt, raising $20 billion or more over 10 years. It could come as a shock to many seniors who will have to pay the higher premiums even though they consider themselves solidly middle-class, and by no means wealthy (Alonso-Zaldivar, 12/20).

The New York Times: Next Challenge For The Health Law: Getting The Public To Buy In
On its face, the low-key discussion around a conference table in Miami last month did not appear to have national implications. Eight men and women, including a diner owner, a chef and a real estate agent, answered questions about why they had no health insurance and what might persuade them to buy it. ... The sessions confirmed a daunting reality: Many of those the law is supposed to help have no idea what it could do for them. In the Miami focus group, a few participants knew only that they could face a fine if they did not buy coverage. ... There lies the challenge for Enroll America, a nonprofit group formed last year to get the word out to the uninsured and encourage them get coverage, providing help along the way (Goodnough, 12/19).

The Wall Street Journal: Health Costs On His Mind
Owner Carl Schanstra ... is worried that as Automation Systems continues to expand, it will be subject to a provision in the health-care overhaul that could damage its bottom line. ... That is because his plant, with sales of about $1.6 million for 2012, currently employs 40 full-time workers, mostly low-paid employees who monitor the factory equipment. If sales were to continue to rise, the plant could, conceivably, employ 50 full-time workers in 2014. Under the new health-care law, the Affordable Care Act, businesses with 50 or more full-time equivalent employees will be required, starting in that year, to offer workers health insurance or potentially pay a penalty. The expense, he says, would drive up the cost of his labor. So he doesn't want to let employment at the factory reach that number (Maltby and Needleman, 12/19).

Politico: Utah Exchange The Next Affordable Care Act Test
Utah says it doesn’t want to do much to alter its existing exchange, which it started for small businesses before President Barack Obama’s health care law was enacted in 2010. Gov. Gary Herbert’s administration says it’s ready to add individual coverage, but not much else. So Utah has become a test of how much flexibility the Obama administration is willing to give to states so they’ll agree to build these centerpieces of the health care law — the new health insurance marketplaces for people who don’t have another source of coverage (Millman, 12/19).

The New York Times: F.D.A. And States Discuss Regulation Of Drug Compounders
The Food and Drug Administration conferred with public health officials from 50 states on Wednesday about how best to strengthen rules governing compounding pharmacies in the wake of a national meningitis outbreak caused by a tainted pain medication produced by a Massachusetts pharmacy. It was the first public discussion of what should be done about the practice of compounding, or tailor-making medicine for individual patients, since the F.D.A. commissioner, Dr. Margaret Hamburg, testified in Congress last month about the need for greater federal oversight of large compounding pharmacies. So far, 620 people in 19 states have been sickened in the outbreak, and 39 of them have died (Tavernise, 12/19).

The Wall Street Journal: FDA Lagged On Specialized Pharmacy Regulations
The Food and Drug Administration under President Barack Obama didn't push for a law to regulate drug-mixing pharmacies before a recent outbreak of more than 600 meningitis cases tied to such a pharmacy, the head of the agency said Wednesday. FDA Commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg said her agency didn't press for such a law despite numerous deaths and illnesses over several years linked to compounding pharmacies. She made the remark at a summit meeting the FDA held Wednesday with officials of all 50 states who regulate compounding pharmacies (Burton, 12/19).

Los Angeles Times: Rogue Pharmacists Fuel Addiction
Pharmacists are supposed to be a last line of defense against misuse of prescription medications. By law, they are required to scrutinize prescriptions, size up customers and refuse to dispense a drug when they suspect the patient has no medical need for it. Some, however, provide massive amounts of painkillers and anti-anxiety drugs to addicts and dealers with no questions asked, according to state records, regulators and law enforcement officials. Rogue pharmacists are key enablers of drug abuse and an important source of supply for the illegal market (Glover, Girion and Branson-Potts, 12/20).

The New York Times: Obama Vows Fast Action In New Push For Gun Control
President Obama declared on Wednesday that he would make gun control a “central issue” as he opens his second term, promising to submit broad new firearm proposals to Congress no later than January and to employ the full power of his office to overcome deep-seated political resistance. ... Having avoided a politically difficult debate over guns for four years, Mr. Obama vowed to restart a national conversation about their role in American society, the need for better access to mental health services and the impact of exceedingly violent images in the nation’s culture (Shear, 12/19).

Los Angeles Times: White House Task Force To Tackle Gun Violence
Announcing his first steps in response to the Newtown, Conn., school massacre, President Obama on Wednesday charged a task force with drawing up a list of proposals to reduce gun violence across the nation and urged Congress to hold votes on gun control legislation early in the new year. ... Obama acknowledged the challenging politics of gun control. He emphasized that the task force would look beyond stiffer gun laws for solutions, including measures that address cultural influences and mental health services (Hennessey, 12/19).

The Wall Street Journal: Surgeons Make Thousands Of Errors
They are known as "never events"—the kind of mistake that should never happen in medicine, like operating on the wrong patient or sewing someone up with a sponge still inside—yet new research suggests that they happen with alarming frequency. Surgeons make such mistakes more than 4,000 times a year in the U.S., according to a study led by Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, published online in the journal Surgery (Landro, 12/19).

The Wall Street Journal: Teen Smoking Keeps Falling
Cigarette use among U.S. teenagers fell to historic lows and a four-year rise in marijuana use appears to have leveled off, according to a national study released Wednesday. The annual report, funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse and conducted by the University of Michigan, found the number of teenagers who reported smoking cigarettes in the prior 30 days fell to 10.6% this year from 11.7% in 2011, the lowest level recorded since the survey began in 1975 (Dooren, 12/19).

USA Today: Survey: 1 In 15 High School Seniors Smoking Pot
As states increasingly adopt laws allowing medical marijuana, fewer teens see occasional marijuana use as harmful, the largest national survey of youth drug use has found. Nearly 80% of high school seniors don't consider occasional marijuana use harmful — the highest rate since 1983 — and one in 15 smoke nearly every day, according to the annual survey of eighth-, 10th- and 12th-graders made public Wednesday (Leger, 12/19).

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