Awakening from its slumber on healthcare issues, the U.S. House of Representatives last week unanimously approved two bills aimed at easing federal mandates on providers, clearing the way for one of the two to reach President Bush's desk.
One bill that appears headed for enactment would delay the implementation date for new transaction standards mandated by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996.
Providers would have an extra year-until Oct. 16, 2003-to comply with the standards, but they would be required to submit to HHS by October 2002 their plan for compliance. The Senate has passed similar legislation, meaning Congress is close to sending it to the president.
The House also passed legislation easing some Medicare regulations. The legislation includes a requirement that Medicare pay hospitals for care required under the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act.
The Senate has yet to act on a companion regulatory relief bill. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) said that bill could end up as part of the economic recovery package now being negotiated.
Meanwhile, as Senate leaders reintroduced a $3.2 billion bioterrorism-preparedness bill to speed consideration by the full Senate, the American Hospital Association said it will not support it without first seeking more money.
An AHA official called the legislation sponsored by Sens. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and William Frist (R-Tenn.) "an important but modest first step." The AHA said hospitals need $11.3 billion to prepare for bioterrorism, compared with the bill's proposed $370 million. Nearly two-thirds of the Senate is co-sponsoring the bill.
House Energy and Commerce Committee members last week introduced their version of the legislation, which contained no direct spending for hospitals.
In other congressional action, the General Accounting Office reported that Medicare HMO payment increases enacted in 2000 had little effect on whether beneficiaries had more healthcare options. The GAO said only 15 counties were affected by Medicare HMO expansions as a result of the payment increases, making such plans available to just 21,000 Medicare beneficiaries who previously couldn't enroll in them, a small number compared with the 5.6 million beneficiaries now enrolled in Medicare HMOs.