- The Washington Times - Monday, January 19, 2009

EDITOR’S NOTE: Beginning today, reporter Sean Lengell will provide a weekly look at health and health care issues on Capitol Hill.

SCHIP vote set this week in Senate

The Senate is expected to vote this week on legislation to expand a popular health care program for uninsured children, possibly providing Barack Obama with one of the first bill-signing duties of his presidency.

The Senate Finance Committee on Thursday approved a $31.5 billion measure to expand the State Children’s Heath Insurance Program, or SCHIP, for another 4 1/2 years. The bill could hit the Senate floor and Mr. Obama could sign health care bill this week for a full vote as early as Wednesday, with a final version sent to Mr. Obama’s White House desk later this week.

The House passed a similar bill last Wednesday, and Mr. Obama has said he will sign the measure. SCHIP funding would expire at the end of March without congressional action.

The expansion, which would add about 4 million children to the 7 million already covered in the program, would provide Mr. Obama with a high-profile down payment on his promise of universal health care coverage.

The legislation calls for increasing the federal tax on cigarettes by 61 cents to $1 a pack to pay for the program.

Failing grades given over tobacco laws

The American Lung Association slapped the federal government and many states with failing grades in a new report that scores the strength of laws to protect people against tobacco-related illnesses.

The association’s State of Tobacco Control 2008, released last week, gives the federal government straight F’s for failing to increase the Food and Drug Administration’s authority over tobacco products and funding for programs that help smokers kick the habit, and its cigarette tax policy.

The association also gave the federal government a D for signing but not submitting the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control - the world’s first public health treaty, which was drafted in 2004 - to the Senate for ratification.

Many states fared even worse, with Alabama, Kentucky, Missouri, North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia earning straight F’s.

Twenty-three states and the District of Columbia so far have met the association’s 2006 smoke-free-air challenge although just two states - Iowa and Nebraska - passed strong anti-smoking laws in 2008.

“During these economically challenged times, it simply cannot be ignored that investing in tobacco prevention and cessation programs is one of the most cost-effective ways to improve our nation’s health while trimming the bottom line,” said Charles D. Connor, president and chief executive of the American Lung Association.

The full report can be viewed at www.stateoftobaccocontrol.org.

Obama may restore abortion funding

Mr. Obama may overturn a U.S. policy that prohibits funding for groups that perform or promote abortions overseas, possibly as early as his first day in the White House on Tuesday, according to widespread speculation around Washington.

The so-called Mexico City policy was established by President Reagan in 1984. President Clinton rescinded the policy soon after taking office in 1993, but President Bush reinstated it in January 2001.

Capitol Hill Democrats repeatedly have inserted provisions in spending bills to rescind the policy, but Mr. Bush has used veto threats to strike the language from the final versions of the legislation.

Physician shortage on Congress’ radar

House and Senate Democrats jointly introduced legislation Thursday to address a growing nationwide shortage of physicians, nurses other health care professionals who work in geriatric medicine.

The Retooling the Health Care Workforce for an Aging America Act was introduced in by Senate Special Committee on Aging Chairman Herb Kohl of Wisconsin and Sens. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas and Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, and Rep. Jan Schakowsky of Illinois.

The bill would expand education and training opportunities in geriatrics and long-term care for licensed health professionals, direct care workers and family caregivers.

Nationally, only about 1 percent of all physicians, or 7,000, are certified geriatricians, even as the population of older people is on track to double by 2030.

No vote for the measure has been scheduled.

Obama gives nod to Corr for HHS

Mr. Obama said he intends to nominate William Corr as deputy secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS).

Mr. Corr is executive director of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, a privately funded organization established to focus the nation’s attention on reducing tobacco use among both children and adults. He formerly served as HHS chief of staff during the Clinton administration, where he was principal adviser to Secretary Donna E. Shalala.

Mr. Corr also worked as chief counsel and policy director for former Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle, who is Mr. Obama’s pick to head HHS.

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