Congress To Take Incremental Steps To Address Issue of the Uninsured, Sen. Bill Frist Says
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) on Friday said that Congress this year would take incremental steps to expand health insurance to more U.S. residents, but he added that "it is impossible" to provide coverage for all residents, the New York Times reports. Frist said, "It is impossible to get everybody covered. It's impossible to get to 100%." Frist also raised concerns about several provisions included in the fiscal year 2005 budget proposal released earlier this month by President Bush. He said that he would fight a provision to reduce "health professions training activities" by 96%, to $11 million, which would eliminate several programs in rural areas and for minorities. In addition, Frist said that he would seek $50 million to fund research that compares the clinical effectiveness of different medications prescribed for the same illnesses; Bush did not include funds for such research in his budget proposal. Frist also said that this year he would seek legislation to cap noneconomic damages in medical malpractice lawsuits but would "take a new tack, relief to specific types of health care providers," such as obstetricians and trauma centers, the Times reports (Pear, New York Times, 2/7).
According to Roll Call, "tight budget constraints" faced by Congress this year "have virtually eliminated any chance" that lawmakers can "address public concerns about skyrocketing health care costs and the rising number of uninsured Americans." In addition, Roll Call reports that because Republicans control both the House and Senate, "their inability to pass any new significant health care legislation this year will make it more difficult for them to counteract Democrats' traditional advantage with voters on the all-important election-year issue." Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) said, "This is a year where it is impossible to low-ball expectations," but he added that Republicans will seek to pass some lower-cost health care bills. Roll Call reports that to "stay on top of the message game," Frist has asked Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Chair Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) to lead a Republican health care task force to identify "the most pressing issues" and develop proposals to address them. Senate Finance Committee Chair Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) cited legislation to allow individuals who use health savings accounts to deduct from their income taxes 100% of the cost of their catastrophic health insurance premiums as the "most likely health care proposal to move this year," Roll Call reports. He added that Congress might also pass a bill that would allow the reimportation of lower-cost, U.S.-manufactured prescription drugs from Canada and other nations. However, such legislation would face "substantial opposition," Roll Call reports. According to Roll Call, Democrats are "similarly pessimistic" about the prospects for health care bills this year. Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) said, "Democrats would like very significant health care legislation passed," but he added that health care bills passed this year likely "will be minimal" (Pierce, Roll Call, 2/9).This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.