NU Online News Service, Nov. 25, 2003,1:32 p.m. EST – One obscure provision of H.R. 1, the Medicare Prescription Drug, Improvement and Modernization Act of 2003, could create a highly visible health care reform group.[@@]

The House passed the final version of the bill Saturday, and the Senate passed the final version today. Observers say President Bush, a strong supporter of H.R. 1, is all but certain to sign it.

A part of the bill that will become Section 1014 of the Social Security Act, which starts on page 614 of the conference report version, authorizes the federal Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality to spend $6 million over two years to fund a 15-member Citizens Health Care Working Group, according to a copy of the bill conference report posted on the House Ways and Means Committee Web site.

If President Bush signs a separate bill that provides a $6 million appropriation for the working group, the working group will hold a series of hearings on all aspects of the U.S. health care and health finance system, publish a preliminary report, organize public meetings on the report throughout the United States, then submit reform recommendations to the president and Congress.

The president is supposed to send a detailed discussion of the recommendations to Congress, and many congressional committees are supposed to hold hearings on the recommendations, according to the bill text posted on the Ways and Means Web site.

One member of the working group will be the secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services. The comptroller general of the United States will appoint the other 14 members.

The working group members should include individuals with “expertise in financing and paying for benefits and access to care” as well as uninsured consumers, consumers with chronic illnesses, and representatives of business, medical and labor groups, according to the bill text.

Members of the committee cannot be “paid employees or representatives of associations or advocacy organizations involved in the health care system,” according to the bill text.

Working group members will serve for the life of the group. The comptroller general is supposed to use the same procedures used to pick the original members to fill any vacancies.

The working group also can employ 10 federal Labor Department employees and 10 Health and Human Services employees.

Section 1014 gives the working group the right to “secure directly from any federal department or agency such information as the working group considers necessary to carry out this section,” according to the bill text.

The House has posted its copy of the bill text, which it describes as the “legislative text of the Medicare conference agreement,” at http://www.house.gov./medicarerx/hr1-conflegtext.pdf