Roll Call: Latest News on Capitol Hill, Congress, Politics and Elections
November 24, 2014

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November 24, 2014

Look Ahead: Spending Bill Action and Tavenner and Gruber Testimony

Congress and much of Washington, DC pauses this week for the Thanksgiving holiday. Lawmakers will return next week to finalize decisions on an extension of current year funding for federal agencies. Meanwhile, a House committee on Dec. 9 is seeking to grill Centers for Medicare Services Administrator Marilyn Tavenner regarding inaccuracies in reporting on health insurance exchange enrollment statistics. The committee is also seeking testimony from embattled health care overhaul law adviser Jonathan Gruber regarding a series of past comments on the development of the health care law.

House committees have been active in delving into the details of the implementation of the health care law. Republican control of Senate starting next year, offers the opportunity for increasing the number Senate committee hearings on the health law.

Meanwhile, a bill (HR 669) seeking to expand data collection on sudden infant deaths quickly passed the Senate last week. The amended bill requires a final House vote, which is possible before the end of year. The added data on deaths hopes to aid research on more than 4,800 sudden unexpected deaths of babies or children under the age of 4 who die without any clear cause.


November 21, 2014

Week In Review: Ebola Response

Congressional committees this week wrapped up a series of  Ebola response review hearings and advanced bills authorizing international aid funding and streamlining Ebola drug research. Panels examined the Ebola response in West Africa, following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention action this week expanding traveler screening to persons arriving in the U.S. from Mali.

CQ HealthBeat’s (@CQHealthTweet) John Reichard reported (subscription) that aid groups in Africa noted a slowing in the outbreak in West Africa (except for Sierra Leone) but that the international response is hindered by shortages of medical workers and protective gear. Other committees examined the limits of domestic preparedness in combating the virus and efforts speed drug and vaccine development.

Meanwhile, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee on Wednesday quickly approved a measure (S 2917) allowing Ebola drug research in an existing FDA program that expedites drug research for tropical diseases. On Thursday, the House Foreign Affairs Committee, in a voice vote, advanced a measure authorizing $1.8 billion in emergency Ebola response aid through the U.S. Agency for International Development.

The White House has requested $6.2 billion in emergency funding for domestic and international efforts to help combat the Ebola epidemic. After the Thanksgiving holiday recess, lawmakers will return to craft a year-end spending package, which will likely include some of the requested Ebola response funding.


By Paul Jenks Posted at 11 a.m.

November 20, 2014

Ebola Drug Development and Sudden Infant Death Reporting Bills Advance

The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee on Wednesday quickly approved a bill (S 2917) that adds Ebola drug research to an existing FDA drug development program for tropical diseases. The measure now heads toward possible final Senate action before the end of the year. A companion House measure (HR 5729) was introduced earlier this week.

Additionally, retiring committee chairman, Iowa Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin on Wednesday announced committee approval of a measure (HR 669) expanding reporting and data about sudden and unexpected infant deaths. The additional data collection hopes to bolster federal programs and research on the tragic deaths. A possible final Senate vote on the bill this year would complete congressional action on the bill.


November 19, 2014

Heavy Pot Use May Harm the Brain, Study Shows

weed 7 120408 1 240x261 Heavy Pot Use May Harm the Brain, Study Shows

A woman smokes marijuana rolled as a blunt. Photo by CQ Roll Call

In the wake of states voting to legalize marijuana across the country – and even in Washington’s own backyard – a new study funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse found that heavy pot use may actually harm the brain.

“We have seen a steady increase in the incidence of marijuana use since 2007,” said one of the study’s authors, Francesca Filbey, in a press release. Filbey, director of cognitive neuroscience research in addictive disorders at the Center for BrainHealth, added that “research on its long-term effects remains scarce despite the changes in legislation surrounding marijuana and the continuing conversation surrounding this relevant public health topic.”

Supporters of loosening marijuana laws have long argued that the drug has little long-term effect on cognition and is less harmful and addictive than cigarettes or alcohol. But the NIDA-funded research suggests that using pot can have a negative impact on the brain, depending on duration and age of first use.

The study found that chronic marijuana use, which is defined as at least four times per week over the past six months, is correlated to adverse changes in the areas of the brain linked to reward, decision making and motivation.  Researchers noticed the impact was greater in individuals who started using pot at an earlier age, implying that developing brains are more susceptible to marijuana’s negative effects.

On the flip side, the study also found that long-term marijuana use can enhance some brain circuits, although researchers acknowledged that the brain could just be compensating for reduced function in other regions as a result of the drug.

NIDA said additional studies are still needed to determine if heavy marijuana use directly caused these effects, but it remains to be seen whether lawmakers will seize on the research in an effort to block recently passed legislation in DC to legalize pot.  Some Republicans have already signaled they would use the annual appropriations process to prevent the District’s marijuana laws from moving forward.

November 13, 2014

Ebola Drug Priority Bill Races Toward Senate Action; Sudden Infant Death Reporting Bill Too

Last month, the two leaders of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee signaled interest in new legislation to speed the development of Ebola drugs. On Wednesday, Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa and Tennessee Republican Lamar Alexander announced plans to markup a bill next week that would allow funding for Ebola drug research through an existing FDA program designed to expedite the development of drugs to combat neglected tropical diseases.

The bipartisan effort by the two committee leaders and the scheduled committee meeting on the measure indicates possible action on the bill prior to end of the current congressional session. Also, the committee next week is likely to approve a separate measure creating a grant program for monitoring sudden unexplained infant deaths (HR 669), which the House approved by voice vote in September. A Senate committee vote on the bill also signals possible final Senate action on the bill before the end of the year.


November 12, 2014

Nurses Begin Strikes Across Globe for Better Ebola Protections

A wave of hospital vigils, rallies and strikes are beginning to snake across the globe today, as 100,000 registered nurses press for greater protections for health care workers treating the deadly Ebola virus.

In Washington, DC, National Nurses United will hold a vigil and press conference outside of the White House later this afternoon, in conjunction with strikes and rallies at hospitals and federal buildings already taking place throughout the country. Similar events will also be held in Canada, Australia, Spain, Ireland and the Philippines, in what the organization is calling “Global Ebola Awareness Day.”

“The lack of concern for nurses and patients in a world where corporations have taken over our community health care has been magnified during this deadly Ebola crisis,” said National Nurses United Executive Director Rose Ann DeMoro in a press release.

The push comes in the wake of news that health care workers being treated for the virus in New York and Texas are now Ebola-free. But the group still has lingering concerns over the quality of protections for health workers and the preparedness of U.S. hospitals if another case were to enter the borders.

The nurses are seeking full-body hazmat suits and powered air purifying respirators for all caregivers dealing with Ebola patients, as well as continuous and interactive training for health workers who might encounter the virus.

“Nurses are demanding patient safety.  They are heroes,” DeMoro said. “Hospitals should be forced to spend the money on patient safety that they spend on public relations.”

Meanwhile, lawmakers returning to Capitol Hill on Wednesday kicked off the lame-duck session with the first in a string of several Congressional hearings to examine international efforts to combat Ebola and assess the administration’s emergency request for funding.


By Melanie Zanona Posted at 12:51 p.m.

NY Ebola Patient Released But Nurses Press for Improved Preparedness

A Senate committee today focuses on the administration’s Ebola response plans and new $6.18 billion funding request. The session (view Roll Call’s live stream site), plus other scheduled congressional hearings on the topic coincide with the release in New York City on Tuesday of the last  U.S. patient currently being treated for the Ebola virus.

However, a national nurses group today is planning a White House vigil and national protest rallies to call attention to shortcomings in domestic preparedness for fighting the Ebola virus. Also, the White House’s Ebola Response Czar, Ron Klain, noted in a television interview on Tuesday that the New York City case will likely not be last domestic Ebola virus case.


By Paul Jenks Posted at 7:39 a.m.

November 11, 2014

HHS Offers a Reminder on HIPAA Privacy Waivers During Emergencies

Strict federal patient privacy protections are a major regulating element of the U.S. health care delivery system. The privacy rules, enacted through the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), limit the disclosure of individually identifiable patient health information and are balanced with allowances for health care communications.

However, a public health emergency could stress the rigid enforcement of the privacy rules. Recent domestic cases of the Ebola virus prompted the Department of Health and Human Services on Monday to issue a bulletin explaining how the privacy rules include waiver provisions in the event of a declared official emergency. If the President announces an emergency, the Secretary of Health and Human Services may waive enforcement of several notable HIPAA requirements, including:

  • Gaining a patient’s agreement to speak with family members
  • Requests to opt out of a listing in a hospital or health facility’s directory
  • Distribution of a notice of privacy practices
  • Requests on the distribution and disclosure of protected health information
  • Requests for confidential methods for communications of health information






VA Raced Toward Health Care System Improvements by Veterans Day

The embattled Department of Veterans Affairs targeted today, Veterans Day, as the delivery date for improvements to the VA’s delivery of health care services. The crash reorganization effort hopes to quickly implement improvements following reports and congressional recriminations over delays in treatment services and staff manipulation of patient wait time statistics.

Since passage of new legislation in September giving the VA additional funding and authority to expand health care treatment options, the agency has raced to develop expanded allowances for veterans’ health treatment services at non-VA facilities. The legislation provides $10 billion in additional funding for non-VA treatment services, plus $5 billion to hire more doctors, nurses and medical staff.

Last week the agency announced regulatory changes allowing access and VA payment for health services outside of the VA system and a new ID card enabling veterans to get alternative treatment services. CQ Roll Call’s Connor O’Brien reported (subscription) that VA Secretary Robert McDonald on Monday extolled the new treatment access provisions, plus improved customer service operations in a VA reorganization announcement.

McDonald on Monday also touted improvements since September through three objectives: to improve trust, offer better service delivery and implement a long-term overhaul of the VA organization. McDonald described improvements in appointment scheduling and access to outside treatment services in a speech at the offices of the Washington Post:

We’ve made progress on all three, but we still have work to do. From June to September, we’ve completed over 1 million more appointments in our facilities than in the same months last year. We’ve also authorized over 1 million veterans to receive care outside the V.A., a 46 percent increase over last year. We’ve developed something we call the blueprint for excellence to reestablish V.A.’s leadership in health care. And we’ve begun what may become the largest restructuring in the department’s history.


By Paul Jenks Posted at 8:30 a.m.

November 10, 2014

Health Law Repeal Obstacles Remain, But Some Support Exists for the Repealing the Medical Device Tax

Republicans gaining control of the Senate starting in January opens up the prospect for advancing legislation on changes to the Affordable Care Act. However, Senate Republicans will still have to wrestle with minority Senate Democrats to consider any health law repeal or adjustment bills. An attempt to completely repeal of the law would likely be opposed by Senate Democrats and would face a certain White House veto. However, some changes the health law could find some bipartisan support.

A medical device tax, which was inserted into the health care bill primarily to raise money to fund other parts of the law, offers one opportunity. Repealing the health law’s imposition of a 2.3 percent excise tax on medical devices has long fostered some Democratic lawmaker interest, particularly from states and districts that are home to major medical device manufactures. CQ Roll Call’s Melissa Attias reported (subscription) last week that Utah Republican Sen. Orrin G. Hatch and Minnesota Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar have pegged the repeal of the tax as a priority and Sen. Hatch’s possible new role as chief of the Senate Finance Committee could spur action on bill.

The IRS has struggled to collect the medical device tax but Congress will be challenged to recoup lost expected funding. Separately, the Congressional Research Service last week weighed in with an economic analysis of the tax noting that an excise levy is not an efficient way to raise revenue and most of the impact of the tax will fall on consumers. The report also notes the tax will likely have a minimal impact increasing overall health spending.

November 7, 2014

‘Senior Statesman for Medicine and Computers,’ NIH’s Lindberg to Retire in 2015

lindbergbw2000 Senior Statesman for Medicine and Computers, NIHs Lindberg to Retire in 2015

Don Lindberg (Courtesy of NIH)

Don Lindberg, who has been the director of the National Library of Medicine for more than 30 years, plans to retire in March 2015, the National Institutes of Health said.

In a statement, NIH Director Francis S. Collins said that, as the first president of the American Medical Informatics Association, Lindberg has a reputation as “the country’s senior statesman for medicine and computers.”

“Think about it—when Don began, NLM had no electronic journals in its collection, few people owned personal computers, and even fewer had access to the Internet,” Collins said in a statement.

Lindberg’s work has “changed fundamentally the way biomedical information is collected, shared, and analyzed,” Collins said. His landmark projects include the MedlinePlus site for the general public and,according to a statement from NIH. Lindberg also created the National Center for Biomedical Information, which has been a focal point for “Big Data” in research. It has provided quick access to the data from  the Human Genome Project and to follow-on genetic sequence data.

By Kerry Young Posted at 11:41 a.m.

November 6, 2014

Veterans Gain Access to Non-VA Treatment Services

The Department of Veterans Affairs on Wednesday began mailing out veterans’ health care access cards that give veterans’ additional options for obtaining health care outside of the VA health system. The new cards, part of a program dubbed Veterans’ Choice, are a direct response to legislation enacted in August that seeks to improve veterans’ health care access and added $10 billion in emergency funding for non-VA treatment services.

The legislation was prompted by revelations of treatment wait list tampering by staff at various VA medical centers. The objective of the program, which adds to an existing allowance for external treatment options, is to speed the delivery of immediate health care treatment and tests by offering veterans the option of going to non- VA facilities. The giant VA health system has more than 9 million enrolled veterans and long-wait times have continuous plagued the system.

Also on Wednesday, the VA published regulations on the Veterans Choice Program, which includes individual and health provider eligibility requirements and provider payments rates. The VA on Wednesday also issued a notice on a revamped process for publishing wait list times.





By Paul Jenks Posted at 4:36 p.m.

November 3, 2014

New Draft Mammography Recommendations Expected Next Year

After facing a backlash over its 2009 verdict on mammography, a federal health panel is seeking to keep the public informed about its efforts to update its recommendations on breast cancer screening.

The United States Preventive Services Task Force may unveil its next mammography recommendation in early 2015. Making such an update to a recommendation is a routine process for the task force, which was founded in 1984. It  has issued dozens of recommendations over the years regarding a wide variety of screening and counseling services, such as suggesting doctors question adult patients about their tobacco use.

But, the task force is best known for its 2009 mammography decision, which overrode an earlier recommendation that women 40 years or older get regular mammograms.

Due to a new review of the medical evidence, the panel recommended against routine mammography for women in their 40s, while supporting biennial screening for women ages 50 to 74. Many medical societies and lawmakers criticized this decision from the task force, which can hold great sway over how insurance companies charge customers for services. Mammograms remain widely covered without copays.

Michael L. LeFevre, the chairman of the task force, said the reaction to the 2009 mammogram recommendations caused the panel to move toward greater transparency about its work and pay more attention to how its findings are disseminated, he said. The intention is to speak beyond the medical community, which has long been its primary audience. It has created a web page for the public to learn more about what’s being studied for the next mammography recommendation.

“We have no interest in being the wizard if you will behind the little black curtain in the corner of the room. We want people to understand what we do and how we do it and how we reached our conclusions,” LeFevre said.


October 31, 2014

The Three Types of Political Halloween Costumes

sexy ebola nurse 240x175 The Three Types of Political Halloween Costumes

Since Ebola entered U.S. borders, the disease has sparked fear, galvanized policy discussions and, unfortunately, inspired Halloween costumes. Hazmat suits have been reportedly flying off the shelves at Halloween stores, while there are even rumors of a “sexy Ebola containment suit” costume.

But that should come as no surprise, since trick-or-treaters and partygoers have been emulating the realm of politics and current events for decades.  Some would say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Others might say nothing is more terrifying than a politician-inspired costume.

At any rate, here are the three most common types of politically-inspired outfits you are likely to see this Halloween:

  1. #nowtrending: These folks want you to know that if there is a hot new political trend, they are ON it. Since Halloween often coincides with election season, political gaffes are usually ripe for the picking in this department. Think Joe the Plumber, Binders Full of Women and the dysfunctional website.
  2. Politicians: A more classic route, the politician costume is a well-suited choice for Hill denizens, couples or people who wait until the last minute and can just throw on a president mask. More creative options include Wendy Davis with pink gym shoes, Marco Rubio with a water bottle or John Boehner with a killer orange tan.
  3. Politically Insensitive:  There’s always one bad apple that spoils the bunch. Scandalous Ebola hazmat suits would likely fall into this category, along with terrorist costumes and zombie versions of deceased public figures. No candy for you.

October 28, 2014

Medifast Teams Up With Fitbit

Weight loss company Medifast is flexing its muscles in the health and fitness community by forming a partnership with Fitbit, the company announced Tuesday.

Wearable devices that track fitness progress – such as the ones sold by Fitbit – have become increasingly popular in the health industry and many weight loss companies have rushed to integrate their products with new fitness technology.

Medifast, which provides a slate of weight-loss programs and products, announced they would be teaming up with Fitbit to create personalized, digital health dashboards for their customers that can synch up with several of Fitbit’s wearable devices. Users will be able to track their exercise, meals, water intake, sleep patterns and weight.

“Studies show that people who use journaling and tracking systems have far greater success with healthy weight management than those who do not,” said Medifast Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Mike MacDonald in a press release. “The combination of Medifast products and programs and wearable health management technology provides our customers with an even more comprehensive solution to wellness.”

Medifast joins a growing list of health companies that have combined forces with fitness trackers, including Weight Watchers and Nutrisystem. Meanwhile, Apple announced in September that it would be launching its own wearable fitness device, Apple Watch, to synch with its health data-sharing app, HealthKit.

Almost 20 percent of adults in the United States own a wearable fitness device, but that number is expected to grow – particularly among millennials – according to a PwC Consumer Intelligence Series report released this month.

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