First Edition: February 17, 2012

Today's early morning highlights from the major news organizations include reports about the latest debate on the Obama administration's regulation to mandate free birth control for women.

Kaiser Health News: SCOTUS Preview Part 2: Analyzing The Likely High Court Arguments On The Health Law (Video) 
In part two of analysis of the Supreme Court's upcoming decision on the health law, Stuart Taylor talks with Jackie Judd about the arguments each side is likely to make defending or against the individual mandate and the Medicaid expansion. Watch the video or read the transcript.

Kaiser Health News: Health On The Hill: Congressional Leaders Reach Deal On 10-Month 'Doc Fix' KHN’s Mary Agnes Carey talks with Jackie Judd about the agreement Senate and House negotiators reached today on the "doc fix," which avoids a cut in Medicare physician payment rates for the rest of the year. Listen to the audio or read the transcript.

Kaiser Health News: Capsules: An Animated Conversation Over ACOs
Now on Kaiser Health News' blog, Karl Eisenhower reports: "Accountable Care Organizations are a continuing source of interest to both health care providers and consumers. We at KHN have called them 'the hottest three-letter word in health care.' Now WBUR’s CommonHealth blog has put together a video animation that walks viewers through how ACOs work and what that means for consumers" (Eisenhower, 2/16). Check out what else is on the blog.

The Wall Street Journal: Catholic Bishops Fight Contraception Rule At House Hearing
Catholic bishops took their fight against a new federal rule requiring health insurance plans to cover contraception to a House hearing, where a representative of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops testified that Obama administration changes announced last week are “simply unworkable” (Radnofsky, 2/16).

The Washington Post: Lawmakers Debate Mandated Coverage Of Contraceptives In Health-Care Law
Tempers flared on Capitol Hill on Thursday as lawmakers waded into an increasingly heated debate over the mandated coverage of contraceptives under the nation’s new health-care law. Several Democrats walked out of a House hearing on the provision, accusing Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) of blocking testimony from a female witness who supports the mandate (Kliff, 2/16).

NPR: Birth Control: Latest Collision Between Individual Conscience And Society
Thursday, a House committee heard representatives from groups representing some Catholics, Jews, Lutherans, Baptists and others upset that the decision was infringing on their religious freedom. ... Democrats and other critics protested the hearing because initially, the witnesses only included men. Two women testified in a later panel. The current controversy over insurance coverage of contraceptives is the latest chapter in the long and often bitter history of conflicts between the right to follow one's conscience and the demands of society (Stein, 2/16).

The New York Times: Passions Flare As House Debates Birth Control Rule
President Obama’s compromise plan to require free insurance coverage of contraceptives for women touched off a tumultuous debate on Thursday in which members of Congress mixed political theater with soul-searching over potential threats to religious liberty (Pear, 2/16).

The New York Times: Religious Groups Equate Some Contraceptives With Abortion
Adding to their passionate opposition to the rule that employees of religiously affiliated institutions must receive insurance coverage for birth control, Roman Catholic bishops and some evangelical groups have asserted that it also requires coverage of some forms of abortion. They contend that methods of contraception including morning-after pills and IUDs can be considered “abortifacients” because, these advocates say, they can act to prevent pregnancy after a man’s sperm has fertilized a woman’s egg (Belluck and Eckholm, 2/16).

NPR: Doctors 'Disgruntled' And Frustrated By Looming Medicare Cuts
The good news for the nation's doctors — and the millions of Medicare patients they care for — is that assuming everything goes as planned, the 27.4 percent cut in reimbursements that would have taken effect March 1 won't. The bad news? The fix included in the deal to extend the payroll tax holiday isn't permanent. It only extends to the end of the year. And then, if Congress doesn't act again, the cut it is expected to be will be in the neighborhood of 32 percent (Rovner, 2/16).

Wall Street Journal: Payroll-Tax Cut Pact A Rare Sign Of Bipartisanship
A deal signed Thursday to extend the payroll-tax cut until year's end was reached with an efficiency and bipartisanship unlike any agreement in the current Congress. But it's unclear if that's an aberration or a sign of change. The deal was reached almost two weeks before a Feb. 29 deadline that could have triggered lower take-home pay for 160 million Americans. Other parts of the package permit extended unemployment benefit payments to continue and prevent steep payment cuts for doctors treating Medicare patients (Bendavid, 2/17).

Politico: Payroll Tax Cut Deal A John Boehner Production
While top congressional tax writers Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.) and Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) were critical to the final deal, Boehner’s senior aides helped negotiate key provisions of the deal leading up to the ultimate night of negotiations. The agreement will avert a tax hike for 160 million Americans, forestall a major pay cut for doctors who treat Medicare patients and prevent jobless benefits from lapsing (Sherman, 2/16).

Politico: Tom Harkin Rips 'Devil's Deal' On Payroll Tax
Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) unleashed fury at President Barack Obama and fellow Democrats over the deal to extend the payroll tax holiday, ripping the agreement apart as a “devil’s deal.” Among Harkin’s litany of problems with the bill: It takes funds away from Social Security. The payroll tax cut is not paid for, compounding the nation’s debt. And it cuts billions from a health care program dear to his heart. ... Harkin, who chairs the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, took particular aim at one component: that will slash about $5 billion from the Prevention and Public Health Fund - a program created by the health care law that Harkin has championed (Kim, 2/16).

USA Today: Solicitor General Brings Voice Of Reason To Health Care Case
When the new health care law comes to the Supreme Court for a crucial test next month, the voice defending it will be a new one. Donald Verrilli, who is less than a year into his post as U.S. solicitor general, did not argue the case in lower courts. And unlike officials who have been public boosters of President Obama's initiatives, Verrilli has worked mostly behind the scenes (Biskupic, 2/16).

The New York Times: U.S. To Review Diet Treatment Once Rejected
Next week, advisers to the Food and Drug Administration will recommend whether the agency should approve the first new prescription diet pill in 13 years. The F.D.A. rejected the drug under review, Qnexa, in 2010, amid safety concerns, and the drug’s manufacturer is now presenting additional data to argue its case. ... Through a regulatory loophole of sorts, many obesity doctors prescribe two separate drugs that, when taken together, are essentially the same medicine. The widespread use of the unsanctioned combination reflects the often desperate desire for a medicine to help overcome the nation’s epidemic of obesity, doctors and patients say (Pollack, 2/16).

NPR: Weight-Loss Drugs Face High Hurdles At FDA
(T)he FDA rejected Qnexa in 2010 because of concerns about side effects, especially possible heart problems and birth defects. Qnexa's rejection came amid a flurry of failed attempts by drug companies to win approvals of new weight-loss drugs. The setbacks put a spotlight on how the FDA handles these drugs. Even though obesity is at epidemic levels, the FDA hasn't approved any new weight-loss medicines since 1999. ... The FDA has been especially tough on weight-loss drugs because of previous problems with those drugs, such as the diet drug cocktail fen-phen (Stein, 2/17).

The New York Times: Alabama Plans To Close Most Hospitals For Mentally Ill
Alabama will shut down most of its mental health hospitals by the spring of 2013 in a sweeping plan to cut costs and change how the state’s psychiatric patients receive treatment, state officials announced on Wednesday. The decision to close four hospitals and lay off 948 employees is a bleak reminder of Alabama’s shrinking budget. But it is also the latest example in a longstanding national effort among states to relocate mentally ill patients from government hospitals to small group homes and private hospitals (Brown, 2/16).

The Washington Post: Maryland Hospitals To Share Patient Data
Maryland’s 46 acute-care hospitals will soon be able to share basic patient information among themselves and with credentialed doctors, a key step that health officials and clinicians say will improve patient care and cut costs (sun, 2/16).

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