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HEALTH CARE REPORT: The health care budget

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The debate over reforming the nation's health care system amps up this week as Congress begins piecing together the 2010 fiscal year budget.

President Obama used his weekly radio address Saturday to urge Congress to draft a budget "that makes a serious investment in health care reform," adding that such a move "would contribute to a real and lasting (economic) prosperity for the country."

The president added the nation doesn't have to choose between health care reform and fiscal discipline, saying that "making investments now that will dramatically lower health care costs for everyone won't add to our budget deficit in the long-term — it is one of the best ways to reduce it."

Sen. Tom Harkin, Iowa Democrat and member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, said he will strive to include preventative health care measures in the budget because such strategy would go a long way to cutting overall health care costs. By emphasizing wellness, fitness, good nutrition, and disease prevention, he said, people will have fewer health problems and stay out of the hospital in the first place.

"In the United States, today, we don't have health care system, we have sick care system," Mr. Harkin said Monday. "The system and all of the incentives are focused on pills, surgery, hospitalization and disability."

Iowa's othersenator, Charles E. Grassley, told a gathering of Washington Times reporters and editors Monday that any health care reforms will be done in a bipartisan fashion and that "everything (will be) on the table" during budget negotiations.

"You can't pick and choose if you're going to be a good-faith negotiator," said Mr. Grassley, who is the ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee.

Underinsured Americans

A study scheduled for release Tuesday shows that the number of Americans without access to adequate health care increased last year by 4 million.

The report, sponsored by the National Association of Community Health Centers, says the number of "medically disenfranchised" Americans has reached 60 million, even though health centers added 2 million people to their patient rolls over the same period.

The number of medically disenfranchised grew three times faster than population growth, a sign, the report says, that access to primary care is worsening and even reaching the doorstep of middle-class America. But low-income, uninsured and minority populations are disproportionately affected.

The Department of Health and Human Services announced last week it would spend $268 million that was included in the $787 billion economic stimulus package passed by Congress last month "to support hospitals serving uninsured, vulnerable Americans."

Eligible hospitals are those that serve a disproportionate share of low-income or uninsured individuals and are known as Disproportionate Share Hospitals (DSH). The stimulus measure increased the amount of federal money states receive for DSH hospitals to $11.33 billion for 2009, compared with $11.06 billion the previous year.

Health advocacy

A new coalition of medical researchers, academic professionals, labor and business groups, and others last week launched the Council for American Medical Innovation — a working partnership dedicated to urge Congress to adopt an agenda to spur innovation and discoveries in the life sciences.

"American leadership in medical innovation must be part of our economic recovery plan," said former House Democrat Rep. Dick Gephardt, who helped form the group. "It has a direct impact on job growth, U.S. competitiveness and the health of all Americans."

A study released last month by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) found that while the United States currently ranks sixth among 40 countries and regions in innovation and competitiveness, it placed last in terms of progress made over the last decade. Singapore, Sweden, Luxembourg, Denmark and South Korea now outrank the U.S.

Members of the Council include: AdvaMed, the ALS (Lou Gehrig's Disease) Association, American Society for Therapeutic Radiology and Oncology, American Academy for Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Association of Clinical Research Organizations, the Cleveland Clinic, the National Health Council, the National Organization for Rare Disorders, the Parkinson´s Action Network, RetireSafe and the Whitman-Walker Clinic.

Sean Lengell can be reached at slengell@washingtontimes.com