To: Members Of The NRLN Grassroots Network:
Subject: NRLN 3rd Quarter 2007 Legislative Progress Report
The NRLN and its Grassroots Advocates were engaged from the beginning in early July with what has become a protracted battle of high-stakes politics involving the House, Senate and a Presidential veto of SCHIP (State Children's Health Insurance Program). When the legislation was first taken up by the House, it was know as H.R. 3162, the Children's Health And Medicare Protection (CHAMP) Act.
On July 25th, the NRLN issued a news release calling for the passage of the intergenerational healthcare bill that would be beneficial to America's children and Medicare participants. NRLN President Jim Norby stated in the news release that the legislation would reduce the asset test in Medicare Part D and streamline the application process, thereby helping millions of Americans with modest savings, including many of the NRLN's two million members, gain access to affordable healthcare. He said the NRLN supported the provision in the bill that would give more low-income Medicare beneficiaries extra help with prescription drug costs.
"Unless Congress comes up with a solution such as the one offered in this bill, physicians will face a 10-percent cut to Medicare payments on Jan. 1, 2008. According to the American Medical Association, more than 60 percent of doctors say they will limit the number of new Medicare patients they will treat if the cut goes through," Norby said. "With more Americans reaching the age for Medicare eligibility, it would be foolish to curtail their access to medical care."
The bill would block impending cuts in Medicare payments to doctors, giving them a modest increase in fees in each of the next two years while Congress tries to devise a new payment policy.
Norby noted that the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office said the government paid private Medicare plans, on average, 12 percent more than it would have cost to care for the same people in traditional Medicare. Moreover, it said, payments to the fastest-growing type of plan, known as private fee-for-service plans, are 19 percent higher than the cost of traditional Medicare.
"The House bill would gradually reduce these payments so that Medicare would pay the same amount, regardless of whether a beneficiary was in a private plan or in traditional Medicare," Norby said. "In addition, the House bill would prohibit private Medicare plans from charging higher co-payments than traditional Medicare."
Another important provision of the bill, according to Norby, was that the Secretary of Health and Human Services would be allowed to expand Medicare coverage of preventive services like certain disease-detection screenings. To encourage use of these benefits, Congress would eliminate most co-payments and other charges.
The NRLN followed a day later with an Action Alert asking Grassroots Advocates to write to their U.S. Representatives urging them to support H.R. 3162. Using the sample letter on the NRLN's Capwiz website page, Grassroots Advocates sent more than 1,000 letters to Capitol Hill. The House passed the bill on August 1 by a vote of 225 to 204. One day later, the Senate passed its version of a bill on children's healthcare, but its bill did not deal with the Medicare issues that were included in the House bill. The vote in the Senate was 68-31.
Given the major differences in the two bills, a Conference Committee was convened. Following the month-long August Congressional recess, the NRLN sent an email on September 14th to Grassroots Advocates to explain that the NRLN shared the concerns of the AARP and the American Medical Association that the conference bill should include the critical Medicare improvements for physicians and beneficiaries from the House package. The outcome of the Conference Committee's work was the SCHIP bill that did not address any of the Medicare issues. After the SCHIP bill was passed by both chambers, President Bush vetoed the bill for a variety of reasons, and all parties are back at the table trying to come up with a compromise. This has tied up the Congressional schedule and pushed other legislation-including important Medicare issues-temporarily off the table.
July also included the NRLN's Washington team and Grassroots Advocates being involved with support for the Pharmaceutical Market Access and Drug Safety Act. Despite the efforts of the NRLN and several other organizations, the bill failed as a result of a "poison pill" amendment that would require certification by the Secretary of Health and Human Services. It served as a "poison pill" because the Bush Administration had already stated that it would never render approval for any imported prescription drugs. The bill's sponsors in the House of Representatives are seeking to introduce the bill on the floor later this year. The NRLN's Washington Team is working closely with these Members to educate Congressional staff members on the merits of the bill.
Jim Norby sent a "letter of comment" in July to the Department of Treasury/IRS to urge the agency to prevent corporations from raiding the assets of pension trust funds. Norby noted in the letter that most of the NRLN members are currently receiving pension benefits from defined benefit plans and are very concerned about the continued viability and financial health of defined benefit pension plans.
"We strongly supported many of the provisions in the Pension Protection Act of 2006 that were designed to strengthen the fiscal underpinnings of defined benefit pension plans," Norby stated. "However, we are concerned that under current law, companies may be able to use pension plan assets to finance expenses that more properly should be paid from corporate assets, thus reducing the amount of pension assets that are available to pay traditional pension benefits. In particular, we are concerned about the unilateral ability of employers to reduce plan assets substantially at a single point in time by offering lump sum severance or layoff benefits to one or more individuals. We believe this type of severance cost should be paid out of the company's operating expenses, not the pension plan."
On September 27th, Jim Norby sent a letter to John Dingell, Chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce urging that the Committee exercise its Oversight Authority with the Federal Drug Administration to ensure that the FDA does not yank from the market remedies like quinine and other "legacy drugs." Norby pointed out that these medicines have been safely prescribed by physicians for decades and many older Americans use them effectively and are able to purchase them at relative low prices.
As the 3rd quarter came to a close, Marta Bascom, NRLN Washington Team member, was involved in strategy discussions on Capitol Hill on a bill introduced by Representative Conyers and Senator Durbin. This bill would offer pension benefit protection in corporate bankruptcy situations. The status of pension benefits in bankruptcy has not been a Congressional priority, and this bill addresses the effects on pension plan participants who often suffer in cases of corporate bankruptcy. Marta is working with Congressional staff members to determine the best approach for gaining support for the bill in the coming months and year.
As we head into the final quarter of 2007, your continued support is needed when we ask you to send messages to your elected representatives in Washington. The NRLN also needs your financial support through your personal membership contributions. The NRLN website at http://www.nrln.org now features the capability to accept online contributions through a click of the "Support the NRLN" link on the Home Page. Also ask your friends to become a Grassroots Advocate by signing up on the NRLN website at http://capwiz.com/abtr/mlm/signup/.
Thank your for your support.
Bill Kadereit, NRLN Vice President, Legislative Affairs