First Edition: May 8, 2012

Today's headlines include highlights of how congressional action surrounding the budget and the student loan program could impact health policy.

Kaiser Health News: Health Care Increasingly Out Of Reach For Millions Of Americans
Kaiser Health News staff writer Phil Galewitz reports: "Having trouble finding a doctor? You're not alone. Tens of millions of adults under 65 — both those with insurance and those without — saw their access to health care dramatically worsen over the past decade, according to a study released Monday" (Galewitz, 5/7).

Kaiser Health News: Insuring Your Health: Patients Share Of Expensive Specialty Drugs Is Rising
In her latest Kaiser Health News consumer column, Michelle Andrews writes: "While most drugs are made from chemicals and can have generic as well as brand-name versions, a typical specialty drug is biologic -- that is, derived from living organisms -- and has no substitute. In addition to treating MS, these drugs are used for such complex, serious conditions as cancer, rheumatoid arthritis and Crohn's disease. Growth in spending on specialty drugs is far outpacing spending on traditional drugs, and many new ones are in the pipeline" (Andrews, 5/7).

Kaiser Health News: Capsules: Grand-Aides Could Offer 'Family-Style' Health Care Help; Small Pharmacists Seek Big Clout In Negotiating With Benefit Managers; Even Small Reductions In obesity Would Generate Major Savings, Report Finds
Now on Kaiser Health News blog, Mary Agnes Carey reports a health care approach known as grand-aides: "Assuming the 2010 health law survives its Supreme Court challenge, about 32 million more people are expected to be eligible for coverage in 2014 through the law's Medicaid expansion or new health insurance exchanges. If the law is struck down, the number of uninsured will continue to increase. With experts warning of physician shortages and rising health expenditures, how can all those people get medical care without costs going through the roof? Dr. Arthur Garson Jr. has a plan" (Carey, 5/7).

Also on the blog, Carey reports on the latest push by small pharmacists to gain clout with benefit managers: "It's highly unlikely that during a heated election season House Republicans would want to wade into a debate over antitrust law. But that isn't stopping independent pharmacists from trying" (Carey, 5/7).

In addition, Judith Graham reports on a new study and its findings on obesity: "Cut the growth in rates of obesity by just 1 percent a year over the next two decades, and you’ll slice health care costs by $85 billion. Keep obesity rates at their current levels – which is well below a 33 percent increase being projected — and you'll save nearly $550 billion during the same time frame" (Graham, 5/7). Check out what else is on the blog.

Los Angeles Times: Congress Returns To Fight For The Presidency
Democrats will seek to portray Republicans as protecting the wealthy at the expense of the middle class. Republicans will use the sluggish economy and Obama's healthcare law as prime examples of big government failures. … The fight over student loan interest rates, which will resume Tuesday with a vote in the Senate, is the first skirmish: Senate Democrats will highlight Obama's plan to extend the lower rate by paying for it with a new tax on wealthier Americans. Republicans will counter with a proposal to divert money from a fund that is part of the president's healthcare law (Hennessey and Mascaro, 5/7).

The New York Times: House Bill Offers Aid Cuts To Save Military Spending
The Republican-led House this week will lay bare the choice between social programs and Pentagon spending in an age of austerity when it takes up legislation to slice $261 billion from food stamps, Medicaid, social services and other programs for struggling Americans over the next decade to stave off more than $50 billion in military spending cuts scheduled to take effect next year (Weisman, 5/7).

The Associated Press/Washington Post: Senate Heads Toward Showdown Vote On Student Loans With Dems, GOP Stalled Over Paying For It
Republicans say they favor freezing student loan interest rates but oppose how Democrats would finance the $6 billion bill: by raising Social Security and Medicare payroll taxes on high-earning stock holders of some privately owned corporations (5/8).

The Washington Post: Republicans Seek To Add More In Defense Spending
Another issue to watch is the Obama plan for increasing fees for military retirees, both for working retirees' health-care programs and for their drug purchases. The authorizers would bar any increases or new fees but propose a pilot program on pharmacy purchases. Some $1 billion is involved, and the GOP appropriators have yet to decide the issue (Pincus, 5/8).

The Wall Street Journal: House Bill Shields Defense From Cuts
House Republicans, seeking to prevent defense-spending cuts at the end of the year, advanced a plan that would instead reduce spending on health-care programs, food aid and other major domestic initiatives of the Obama administration. The bill developed by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R., Wis.) would cut about $261 billion in domestic spending over the next decade and roll back portions of the 2010 health-care law and the Dodd-Frank financial overhaul (Hook and Paletta, 5/7).

Politico: GOP: Shield Pentagon, Cut Poverty Programs
The bill reported by the House Budget Committee on Monday evening is the most serious Republican attempt yet to forestall those cuts for defense but only by substituting alternative domestic savings. … Lashing back at Obama, Republicans have targeted his health care and financial markets reforms as major targets in the new savings package, totaling over $310 billion over 10 years. But tens of billions would also come from food stamps, Medicaid and child tax credit refunds — a major shift of resources from the social safety net to the Pentagon (Rogers, 5/7).

Los Angeles Times: Polls: Obama, Romney Neck And Neck Six Months Ahead Of Election
Still, at this early point in the campaign, voters appeared to prefer Obama over Romney on a host of other issues aside from the economy. Obama holds a 23-percentage-point lead over Romney (58% to 35%) on the question of who would better stand up for the middle class. He also leads Romney on "sharing your values" and on who would better handle foreign policy, taxes, healthcare, jobs, and Social Security and Medicare. The only category in which Romney performed better than Obama was when voters were asked who would better handle the economy. Romney won 48% to Obama's 45% (Geiger, 5/7).

Reuters/Chicago Tribune: U.S. Healthcare Access To Erode If Law Struck Down- Study
Most Americans have seen a decade-long erosion in access to medical services that is likely to continue if President Barack Obama's healthcare law is struck down by the Supreme Court or repealed in Congress, a study released on Monday shows (Morgan, 5/7).

The Associated Press/Washington Post: Study: Spread Of Consumer-Directed Health Plans Can Reduce Nation's Costs, But Risks Seen
It's the hottest trend in job-based health insurance: plans that give you a personal savings account for medical bills but also require you to pay a hefty share of costs before coverage kicks in. Such "consumer-directed" plans could save billions for employers, providing relief from high health care costs, a study published Monday concludes (5/7).

Politico: Study: Bigger Hospitals Drive Cost Increases
For everyone out there worried that President Barack Obama's health reform law will spur monopolies and make it easier for hospitals to raise their prices, a new study says it's already happening, and it's not because of the health law. A study in the May edition of Health Affairs finds that hospitals' power to win steep payment increases — and insurers' relative inability to resist — varies quite a bit from one market to another and from one kind of hospital or hospital network to another. Reputation, location and the type of medical services provided play a role (Dobias, 5/7).

USA Today: Home Health Care Is One Of The Most Profitable Franchises
A new report lists home health care as one of the top five most profitable franchises in the U.S., even as the industry fights new Department of Labor rules calling for mandatory overtime and minimum wage requirements for home health employees (Kennedy, 5/7).

NPR: Long-Term-Care Insurance: Who Needs It?
Americans routinely buy all sorts of insurance — for cars, homes, health and even pets and boats. But when it comes to long-term-care insurance, relatively few sign up. Out of more than 313 million Americans, only about 8 million have any such protection, according to the American Association for Long-Term Care Insurance. The low participation rate largely reflects the high cost of long-term-care insurance (Geewax, 5/8; part of the Family Matters series).

The Associated Press/Washington Post: Appeals Court Nixes Order For VA Mental Health Care Overhaul, Says Lawmakers Must Fix Problems
A federal appeals court on Monday reversed its demand that the Veterans Affairs Department dramatically overhaul its mental health care system. A special 11-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said that any such changes need to be ordered by Congress or the president (5/7).

The Washington Post: Abbot Laboratories Agrees To $1.6 Billion Settlement Over Marketing Of Depakote
Global pharmaceutical giant Abbott Laboratories has agreed to pay federal and state governments $1.6 billion in criminal and civil fines for illegally promoting unapproved uses of its drug Depakote, including to sedate elderly patients in nursing homes, officials announced Monday (Aizenman, 5/7).

The New York Times: Abbott Settles Marketing Lawsuit
The pharmaceutical company Abbott Laboratories said on Monday that it had reached an agreement with the federal and nearly all state governments to pay $1.6 billion in connection with its illegal marketing of the anti-seizure drug Depakote (Schmidt and Thomas, 5/7).

Los Angeles Times: Abbot Labs Agrees To Pay $1.6 Billion To Settle Depakote Cases
Abbott will pay $800 million to resolve civil allegations split among federal and state governments, $700 million in criminal penalties and $100 million to states to resolve consumer protection matters, the Abbott Park, Ill., company said Monday (Frost, 5/7).

Religion News Service/The Washington Post: Conservative Catholics Blast Upcoming Appearance By HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius At Georgetown University
Now it is the conservatives’ turn: The flagship Jesuit university has announced that Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, a Catholic who has angered conservatives and bishops for overseeing the Obama administration’s contraception insurance mandate and other controversial policies, will address the policy institute’s graduating class at commencement on May 18 (Gibson, 5/7).

The Washington Post: Sale Of D.C. Health-Care Firm In Works
D.C. Chartered Health Plan is weighing offers from buyers in an effort to keep $350 million in District government business that officials have said it could lose if the company remains in the hands of owner Jeffrey E. Thompson (Stewart and DeBonis, 5/7).

The Associated Press/Washington Post: Court Hearing Scheduled In Lawsuit Against Conn. Governor Over Unionization Of Care
Fergus Cullen, executive director of the Yankee Institute conservative think tank, said the legislation does not affect the institute’s lawsuit challenging the legality of an executive order signed by Malloy last year. It created a process for the workers who are paid through the state's Medicaid program, to select a union to represent them in non-binding talks with the Department of Social Services (5/7).

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