Congress Likely To Address Key Health Issues in 2002
The 2002 congressional session "promises a return to meat and potatoes" health care issues, including health coverage for the uninsured, a Medicare prescription drug benefit and patients' rights legislation, the Los Angeles Times reports (Carey, Los Angeles Times, 12/31). Congress last year did not pass legislation to address those issues, and in 2002, lawmakers face the "same thorny obstacles" -- "political divisiveness and economic constraints" (MacDonald, Hartford Courant, 12/31). However, Democrats and Republicans during the 2000 elections "promised" to address substantial health care issues, "so there is a big incentive for lawmakers to get at least one signed into law before" the November 2002 elections, the AP/Contra Costa Times reports (Carter, AP/Contra Costa Times, 12/31). The following is a summary of the prospects for each of the issues in 2002.
- The uninsured: Although Republicans and Democrats each attached provisions to help the uninsured purchase health coverage to their economic stimulus bills, the parties have "strong disagreements on how to structure" a plan that they could not resolve last year. An estimated 911,000 unemployed workers lost their health insurance between March and November 2001, and several health care advocacy groups have said that the uninsured "will be their top health care issue for 2002" -- "virtually assuring that the issue will receive renewed attention" (Hartford Courant, 12/31). Analysts predict that Congress will "weigh some combination" of tax reductions, subsidies and expanded public health programs to help the uninsured, but experts "doubt that Congress will attempt fundamental reform of health care" (Los Angeles Times, 12/31).
- Medicare prescription drug benefit: The decreased federal budget surplus and increased spending on anti-terrorism measures will force lawmakers to "pinch pennies elsewhere," hurting the chances of passing a Medicare prescription drug benefit in 2002 (AP/Contra Costa Times, 12/31). Lawmakers also remain "sharply divided" over whether a prescription drug benefit should cover only low-income Medicare beneficiaries (Hartford Courant, 12/31). John Rother of AARP said, "I think the pressure is on them to find a way to pay for a drug benefit. I do believe voters will be very interested in the fall election cycle" (AP/Philadelphia Inquirer, 12/31). Some congressional leaders have said that lawmakers will address the issue in 2002, but House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas) has "indicated there is little chance a prescription drug benefit will pass until the economy improves" (Hartford Courant, 12/31).
- Patients' rights: Although both the House and the Senate passed patients' rights legislation in 2001, lawmakers have not resolved the "biggest difference" in the bills -- "how much standing patients should have for suing insurers" (AP/Contra Costa Times, 12/31). The Senate bill included broader patient protections than the House bill, which President Bush supports. Bush has threatened to veto the Senate bill. Senate Democrats likely would not have enough votes to override a presidential veto, and as a result, an agreement on the issue would likely "force Democrats to make concessions on the right-to-sue issue" (Hartford Courant, 12/31).
Congress also will likely address a number of additional health care issues in 2002, including:
- Genetic discrimination: Lawmakers and Bush have given "strong support" to proposed legislation that would prohibit employers and insurers from denying individuals employment or coverage based on genetic tests, and Bush has said he will support a "reasonable" bill. Insurers have said that the issue, "after being sidelined in 2001, could be the sleeper health issue" this year.
- Human cloning: The Senate early in 2002 plans to debate a bill to ban human cloning, which Bush and many lawmakers support. The House passed a ban last year. Debate in the Senate likely will focus on "whether to allow any cloning for therapeutic purposes" (Hartford Courant, 12/31).
- Stem cell research: Lawmakers may consider legislation, "much to the chagrin of abortion critics," that would expand the limit on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research that Bush set in August.
- Mental health: Lawmakers may reintroduce an expanded version of the 1996 mental health parity law, which died in a House-Senate conference committee last month. The Senate approved the expansion as part of the fiscal year 2002 Labor-HHS appropriations bill (AP/Contra Costa Times, 12/31).
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