Revive the Public Health Insurance Option

Progressive Democrats Attempt to Revive the Public Health Insurance Option

A group of 129 progressive House of Representatives Democrats, seeking to revive the public option, introduced legislation on July 22 to establish a public health insurance plan that would compete with private health insurers. It is highly unlikely that the House will vote on the legislation this year. Republicans and some moderate Democrats remain strongly opposed to the public option, and Democratic leaders have little interest in reigniting the divisive health care reform debate before the November elections.

Supporters of the Public Option Act (H.R. 5808) claim that the legislation would sharply reduce the federal deficit. The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates that the bill would reduce the federal deficit by approximately $68 billion from 2014 to 2020.

The public plan would be administered by the Secretary of Health and Human Services and would be offered through the new health insurance exchange beginning in 2014.  The bill would require the public plan to charge premiums that fully cover its costs for benefit payments and administrative expenses. The plan’s provider payment rates would be based on Medicare reimbursement rates. The legislation has been referred to the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

President Obama Signs Unemployment Insurance Extension Bill into Law

President Barack Obama signed H.R. 4213, the Unemployment Compensation Extension Act of 2010, into law on Thursday, July 22, ending months of partisan squabbling over the measure. Moments after the late Senator Robert Byrd’s (D-WV) replacement, Carte P. Goodwin, was sworn into office, the Senate quickly voted to invoke cloture on the legislation, sending it back to the House, which then passed the measure by a vote of 272-152.

The legislation did not include an extension of the COBRA health insurance subsidies and other safety-net programs that had also expired earlier this year. The legislation will provide unemployment insurance for those who have already exhausted their normal six months of benefits through Nov. 30, 2010; it is retroactive to June 2, 2010. The Congressional Budget Office estimates this extension will add $33.9 billion to the federal deficit over 10 years.

House Republicans Criticize New Rules for $27 Billion Electronic Health Records Program

House Ways and Means Health Subcommittee Republicans alleged during a July 20 hearing that eligibility criteria for the new $27 billion federal electronic health records (EHR) program are too lenient. The EHR program will provide additional Medicare and Medicaid payments, beginning in 2011, to health professionals and hospitals that adopt certified EHRs. The additional payments, which were enacted in 2009 as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, will likely encourage many physicians and hospitals to purchase and implement EHR systems.

In order to be eligible for additional Medicare and Medicaid payments, hospitals and health care professionals must adopt and make “meaningful use” of certified EHR technology. Dr. David Blumenthal, the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (IT), testified that the eligibility criteria were designed to accommodate diverse providers, while appropriately encouraging the adoption of EHRs. The Obama Administration had originally proposed more strict eligibility requirements that were denounced by the health care industry as unrealistic.

The new qualification standards are the first in a series of rules, and they apply only to additional payments before 2013. Dr. Blumenthal stated that HHS will place higher demands on providers in the future.

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