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Looking to 2009, Senate Panel Plans Health Summit for June

By CQ Staff

May 23, 2008 -- The Senate Finance Committee, looking ahead to one of the most pressing issues that will face the next president and Congress, on Friday announced plans for a bipartisan, bicameral health policy "summit" next month.

Finance Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., and ranking Republican Charles E. Grassley of Iowa said the summit will take place June 16 at the Library of Congress as part of its year-long series of hearings, forums, and other events to prepare for congressional action next year.

"Our broken health care system is endangering families and sapping this country's ability to compete economically, and Americans want something done about it," Baucus said in announcing the June 16 event. "All of us in Congress have a responsibility to learn all we can now, start talking through the sticky issues, and be ready to move when the time comes for real reform."

Grassley said it was critical to build broad-based support for efforts to tackle the soaring costs and coverage gaps of the current mixed private–public health care system.

"I'm glad to support an event that encourages a productive dialogue and gets people focused on ideas and possibilities. ... This summit is a chance to study the opportunities that exist to improve access and quality in America's health care system, and to consider what's involved in making possible reforms," Grassley said.

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke will be a keynote speaker at the summit, along with Dr. J. Craig Venter, a pioneer in sequencing the human genome. Bernanke will discuss the impact of health care spending on the U.S. economy, while Venter will address research advances and their relevance to overhaul the health system.

The Finance Committee leaders said discussions at the summit will cover state-based health care reform efforts, trends in employer-sponsored health coverage, demographic trends, public programs, and delivery-of-care issues.

The House Ways and Means Committee also is canvassing experts. A Health Subcommittee hearing last month was intended to "lay the groundwork" for an expected attempt next year to overhaul the health insurance system, said panel Chairman Pete Stark, D-Calif. Congress has not seriously discussed a broad health care overhaul since the ill-fated Clinton administration health plan of 1993.

Health care is an oft-mentioned topic on the presidential campaign trail this year. An estimated 47 million Americans are uninsured, and millions more are under-insured, meaning that their coverage isn't sufficient to cover catastrophic problems like cancer.

Both Democratic presidential candidates—Sens. Barack Obama of Illinois and Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York—have produced detailed health overhaul plans, as has Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona.

Medicare Pressure
The financial strain on Medicare of an aging population and rapidly increasing health costs provides one major impetus for action in the next year or two.

Virtually every health expert to testify before Congress has said that it is impossible to effectively address cost pressures on Medicare without overhauling the broader health care coverage and delivery system.

Medicare Part A, which covers hospital care, is projected to begin paying more in benefits than it collects from payroll taxes this year.

Medicare trustees said in their annual report in March that Medicare's hospital insurance trust fund will be exhausted in 2019, leaving Congress to either tap general income tax revenues to keep the program running or cut benefits.

Congress, not prone to doing anything difficult or controversial until it faces an immovable deadline, has not passed major Medicare legislation since 2003, when it dramatically expanded the program to include a prescription drug benefit (PL 108-173).

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