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HEALTH CARE REPORT: Health care reform delay?

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Health care reform delay?

President Obama's promise to push for an overhaul of the country's health care system is taking a temporary back seat to the pressing matters of aiding the slumping economy.

The $800 billion-plus economic rescue package has dominated Congress so far this year, and though the proposal includes billions of dollars in medical spending, a comprehensive health care reform package could slip into next year, some on Capitol Hill say.

House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, speaking last week at a conference sponsored by Families USA, said he was committed to helping establish a universal health care system. Nevertheless, the Maryland Democrat was cautious on a time frame, promising only to "bring comprehensive reform to the floor of the 111th Congress," which concludes in January 2011.

He also was fuzzy on how such a proposed system would look, saying that "the answer to that question is still taking shape."

"There are some major questions that remain to be answered - questions about mandates, changes to the tax code and insurance reform," Mr. Hoyer said.

He added that Democrats pledge to work with Republicans on crafting health care reform. "As history has demonstrated, there's no surer way to lose public support than working through this process in the dark."

The top House lawmaker in charge of writing health care legislation said Thursday that he is committed to passing a universal health care package by the end of the year.

"This is our time; we need to move forward, we need to get this job accomplished this year and get the bill to the president," said California's Henry A. Waxman, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, at the conference Thursday.

Meanwhile, the Senate last week passed a $32 billion expansion of the State Children's Heath Insurance Program, or SCHIP, sending the bill to the president after the House passed the measure in early January.

The program is a federal-state initiative for families that don't qualify for health care through Medicaid but can't afford private insurance.

The president has said he will sign the bill, though the White House on Monday said no signing date has been set.

Help for "tweener" hospitals proposed

Sen. Charles E. Grassley introduced legislation last week designed to strengthen the health care delivery system in rural communities.

The Iowa Republican's Medicare Rural Health Access Improvement Act of 2009 is designed to improve Medicare payments to rural doctors, ambulances and midsize hospitals. The bill also would protect access for rural residents to home medical equipment and supplies, continue to lend support to rural hospitals and provide additional authority for physician assistants.

"The policy changes in this legislation go directly to the special challenges facing the health care system in rural America," said Mr. Grassley, the ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, which has authority in the chamber over health care issues. "They recognize the high quality of health care delivered by rural providers, embrace common-sense solutions and seek equitable treatment from payment systems."

The measure also would give so-called "tweener" hospitals better treatment by the Medicare program and put them in a stronger position to provide health care services to people in their communities and local areas. Tweener hospitals are too large to be designated as critical access hospitals but too small to be financially viable under the Medicare hospital prospective payment system, which is designed for larger operations.

Food safety bill

Legislation intended to give the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) the money and authority to better regulate interstate and international food products and to trace sources of contamination more quickly, was introduced last week by a trio of House Democrats.

The Food and Drug Administration Globalization Act would guarantee FDA the funding needed to significantly increase inspections of food facilities and improve outdated information systems. The measure requires food producers to have preventive food safety plans in place and subjects the plans to FDA inspection, requires food imports to meet all U.S. standards, is designed to close loopholes in FDA's ability to trace the source of contaminated products and would impose penalties on companies that violate safety standards.

The measure, sponsored by Reps. John D. Dingell and Bart Stupak of Michigan and Frank Pallone Jr. of New Jersey, calls for parity between foreign and domestic drug and device facility inspections. It also would increase the number of preapproval drug inspections, prohibit the entry of drugs into the United States lacking documentation of safety, require manufacturers to ensure the safety of their supply chain and grant FDA authority to mandate recalls of unsafe drugs.

The measure also creates a dedicated foreign inspectorate to increase FDA's ability to monitor foreign facilities producing food, drugs, devices and cosmetics.

"With the onslaught of reports of contaminated spinach, tomatoes, beef, pet food, and now peanut butter, it is clear increased funding and authority is needed at the FDA like Congressman Dingell's legislation provides," said Bill Marler, a food safety attorney and member of the American Association for Justice's Foodborne Illness Litigation Group.

"However, the revelation the peanut manufacturer responsible for the salmonella outbreak knowingly endangered consumers by selling product they knew was harmful shows why FDA enforcement is not enough."

Sean Lengell can be reached at slengell@washingtontimes.com.

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