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Aides Lay Out Dems' Health Agenda for 110th Congress

By Laura Blinkhorn, CQ Staff

December 11, 2006 -- Democrats will focus on a series of health policy changes in the 110th Congress, with top priorities likely to include giving the government the power to negotiate drug prices for Medicare beneficiaries and increasing federal funding for stem cell research, according to panelists speaking at a post-election break-down presented by Health360Strategies.

Incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has vowed to address those two issues in the first 100 hours of the Democratic Congress. While some Democrats might dislike the idea of giving the government power to negotiate drug prices on behalf of Medicare beneficiaries, panelists argued that passage in the House would put pressure on Senate Democrats to pass legislation as well. A Kaiser Family Foundation poll released Friday found 74 percent of Republicans and 92 percent of Democrats favor giving the government the power to negotiate Medicare drug prices with pharmaceutical companies.

President Bush, however, is likely to veto legislation allowing the government to negotiate prices with drug companies, as well as legislation allowing for federal funding of stem cell research, said House and Senate health care aides.

Another thing to expect from the 110th Congress is "a lot more oversight" of the Medicare prescription drug program and other federal health care programs and agencies, according to a Senate Democratic aide. The aide listed many other issues that could come up, including improving low-income subsidies for health insurance, repealing asset tests, overhauling the State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP), reassessing the drug evaluation system used by the Food and Drug Administration, health information technology, and expanding access to health insurance for the uninsured.

A Republican Senate aide predicted that Medicare physician payments would be revisited in the 110th Congress, despite passage of a deal on payments late Friday night. The aide underscored the importance of reporting requirements and "advancing the idea of quality" of medical care.

The aide also noted legislation introduced in the 109th Congress by Sen. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, and cosponsored by Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont. The legislation (S 3897) would direct the Secretary of Health and Human Services to share data on the drug benefit with other government agencies, certain researchers, and congressional support agencies, such as the Congressional Budget Office and the Government Accountability Office. She cited this legislation as filling a need for more data to access the efficacy of existing programs.

A House Democratic staffer reiterated the prediction of more oversight and a commitment to take up "bipartisan issues," such as Medicare physician payments and health IT legislation. The aide also said lawmakers might examine a "Medicare-like" approach to children's health care and health disparities.

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