Post-inauguration: Healthcare will be standing in line for attention

By Diana Manos
11:17 AM

With the nation's capital preparing for Tuesday's inauguration of President-elect Barack Obama, Congress has been busy pushing healthcare to the front of issues the new president will face on his first day in office.

Prompted by the Obama transition team, an economic stimulus package is making its way at an accelerated pace through various committees in Congress.

A recent poll by PricewaterhouseCoopers shows three-quarters of Americans want healthcare reform during Obama's first term, and reducing healthcare costs is their first priority.

In a Dec. 6 online address, Obama cited a plan that included electronic medical records for every doctor's office and hospital in the country as part of an economic recovery plan. His press briefing earlier this month called for electronic health records for every American by 2014.

Last Thursday, the House Appropriations Committee released a draft for an $825 billion economic stimulus package - $157.5 billion of which is slated for healthcare programs, including $20 billion for healthcare IT.

The package includes $87 billion in funding for Medicaid, $39 billion for COBRA and $1.1 billion for federal research on comparative effectiveness. Among a host of other healthcare expenditures, it proposes $950 million for repairs and renovations of the Department of Veterans Affairs healthcare facilities.

Other House committees are expected to add to this draft, along with language from the Senate, with Congressional leaders expecting to deliver a bill to the president by mid-February.

The Coalition for Patient Privacy urged Congress on Jan. 14 to include privacy safeguards with any funding earmarked for healthcare IT in an economic stimulus package. The bipartisan coalition, representing more than 30 organizations, individual experts and the Microsoft Corporation, said trust is essential to public adoption of healthcare IT.
In the meantime, Congress is working to fund and expand the State Children's Health Insurance Program. The House version of the SCHIP reauthorization would fund the program for 4.5 years and would cover approximately 11 million children.

House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) said the SCHIP bill would be among the first healthcare bills considered in the new Congress under the Obama administration.

But approving SCHIP won't be easy. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee, said the SCHIP bill passed by the senate last week disregarded extensive bipartisan negotiations over the past two years.

Though many say the SCHIP reauthorization is a shoe-in, if Obama is true to his word on bipartisan good will, he will have his hands full smoothing ruffled Republican feathers on an issue that Congress seems bent on passing as soon as possible.

With the economy and the state of the nation said to be the worst since the Great Depression, Obama continues to show optimism in the American people to overcome the odds. In a pre-inaugural speech Sunday night on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, he urged every American to do his or her part.

In a pre-inaugural package of papers released Jan. 16 by Health Affairs, Reps. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) and Michael Castle (R-Del.) said Obama has a chance to achieve healthcare reform and universal coverage, particularly if he acts within the first six months of his administration.

The two House members predicted that partisan bickering will present a serious but not insurmountable obstacle to health reform, and they suggested that fears of opposition to reform from interests such as the insurance industry and small business may be overrated.

Another bit of good news for the new president: A recently released CMS national health spending report showed 2007 healthcare spending at its lowest rate of overall growth since 1998. CMS researchers said slower prescription drug spending contributed to the slowed healthcare spending.

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