Washington Insiders See Health Care Issues Ranking High In Next Congress

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Washington

Health care and prescription drugs will be major issues in the next Congress, but less important than the overall economy and national security, according to a survey of association executives and lobbyists.

In a survey commissioned by the Health Insurance Association of America, 28% of so-called “Washington insiders” identify “health care and prescription drugs” as a priority item of the President and Congress.

This item ranks significantly above “taxes and spending,” which comes in at 13%, and “education,” cited by 12%.

However, it falls far below “the economy and jobs,” which comes in at 74%, and “terrorism and national security,” which is cited by 58%.

Still, nearly 75% of those surveyed cite rising health care costs as an “important” concern for voters in the Nov. 5 election.

“The beginning of the 2004 presidential election jockeying, combined with double-digit increases in health care spending and the resulting increase in the number of uninsured Americans, will thrust health care issues into the public spotlight in the months ahead,” says HIAA President Donald Young, who spoke at a press briefing.

The survey was conducted by Alexandria, Va.-based Public Opinion Strategies. Bill McInturff, a partner with the firm, says several specific health care issues are seen as likely to receive legislative attention.

These include adding a prescription drug benefit to Medicare, expanding childrens health insurance programs, passing a tax incentive for long-term care insurance, passing a patients bill of rights that does not include the right to sue health plans, mental health parity and capping medical malpractice awards.

However, McInturff says, the Washington insiders responding to the survey indicate skepticism that any of these legislative issues will become law.

“It appears that opinion leaders believe that more legislative stalemate will be the rule of the day in the next two years,” he says.

Perhaps surprisingly, McInturff says, Republicans give a couple of key health care issues a higher chance of passing Congress than do Democrats.

He says that 49% of the Republicans responding to the survey cite a Medicare prescription drugs benefit as likely to pass, compared with only 39% of Democrats.

As for expansion of childrens health insurance programs, 35% of Republicans see that as likely to pass Congress, compared with 26% of Democrats.

More generally, the Washington insiders expect the Republicans to maintain control of the House, but they see the Senate as a toss-up, McInturff says.

Looking ahead to the 2004 presidential campaign, he says, there is no strong consensus as to who is the front runner to be the Democratic Party candidate against President George W. Bush.

Former Vice President Al Gore and Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., are each cited by 16% of the respondents as the likely nominee. Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., is named by 14% of respondents.

Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., is cited by 9%, Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D., by 8%, Rep. Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., by 4%, and former Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey by only 1%.

In other news, HIAA and a major employers group say there is widespread uncertainty among groups trying to comply with health information privacy regulation promulgated earlier this year by the Department of Health and Human Services.

HIAA says a lack of clarification from the federal government on fundamental interpretations of the standards and requirements creates uncertainty.

Ron Hoffman, a privacy expert with Mutual of Omaha, spoke on behalf of HIAA at a meeting of the National Committee on Vital and Health Statistics.

In addition, Hoffman says, conflicting and often-changing state privacy regulations create an administrative burden that can be “overwhelming.”

Kevin Fitzgerald, a health care counsel representing the ERISA Industry Committee, Washington, adds that the complexity and lack of guidance is creating confusion among plan sponsors.

“It will take some time and effort to bring all of the players up to speed,” he says.

In addition, both Hoffman and Fitzgerald call for uniform federal standards as opposed to what exists under current law, which allows states to enact privacy laws that are more stringent than the federal standard.

Fitzgerald says the current system is “utterly unworkable” and is “one of the most pervasive problems facing employers in their ability to comply with the law.”

Hoffman says federal pre-emption would give all insurers and health care providers a single set of rules.

The current patchwork system, he says, forces insurers to spend exorbitant amounts of time and money addressing inconsistencies between state and federal standards.

Indeed, Hoffman says, non-standard state privacy regulation could end up costing several billion dollars over the next five years, causing higher insurance premiums and forcing more Americans to go without health insurance.

Federal pre-emption of state privacy regulation, Hoffman says, is of “major importance” to health insurers.


Reproduced from National Underwriter Life & Health/Financial Services Edition, November 4, 2002. Copyright 2002 by The National Underwriter Company in the serial publication. All rights reserved.Copyright in this article as an independent work may be held by the author.