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Harkin offers sweeping public health bill again


By Jessica Zigmond
Posted: January 22, 2013 - 6:00 pm ET
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For the sixth time, the chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee introduced sweeping legislation to strengthen the nation's public health with provisions that aim to combat chronic disease and encourage healthier lifestyles in schools, businesses and communities.

Sen. Tom Harkin's (D-Iowa) bill calls on several Cabinet departments and federal agencies to implement a host of recommendations, and, in some cases, work together to achieve those goals. The legislation would require HHS to issue and update physical activity guidelines for all ages every 10 years; provide tax credits to businesses that offer comprehensive workplace wellness programs; and mandate that the Federal Trade Commission, the Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Agriculture department release recommendations for standards in food marketing to children. A spokeswoman for the HELP committee called this Harkin's “signature” public health legislation, which he has released—in various forms—since the 108th Congress.

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“I think it puts in legislative language the broad direction we're going in public health,” Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, told Modern Healthcare, adding that the bill not only addresses obesity in America, but provides a “glide path to a healthier lifestyle.”

For instance, the bill would establish a program for the CDC and HHS' Health Resources and Services Administration to train health professionals so they can better identify and treat patients who may be or are at risk of being overweight or obese. Meanwhile, the legislation emphasizes healthier lifestyle choices through provisions that would allow employers to deduct the cost of athletic memberships for their employees; establish grants from the USDA to create, expand or maintain community gardens; and establish competitive grants for public and not-for-profit private organizations to implement community-based sports and athletic programs for people with disabilities.

“By making health and wellness a key priority in our schools, workplaces and communities—and by educating people to make informed choices—the HeLP (Healthier Lifestyles and Prevention) America Act can open the door for more Americans to live longer and more productive lives free from chronic disease,” Harkin said in a statement.

The bill also addresses mental healthcare services, which has received more attention lately on Capitol Hill following the shooting massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., last month. Harkin's bill would require the administrator of HHS' Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration to either build on exist monitoring systems or create new ones that better assess mental health and substance abuse disorders and risks.

Benjamin said it remains to be seen whether this bill—in whole or in part—will become law, but that it's likely to resurface in upcoming budget negotiations.

“We know the Senate has said they will do some appropriations bills,” Benjamin said. “Now's the time to put your blueprints out.”


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