The House voted 216-211 to pass a $2.2 trillion 2004 budget that unlike previous versions does not propose major cuts to Medicaid. The budget would authorize $400 billion in new Medicare money from 2004 to 2013 for a prescription drug benefit and program reforms, while cutting taxes by $550 billion over the same period. Other healthcare provisions include a five-year, $8.9 billion reserve fund for Medicaid reform, using money cut from elsewhere in the program; a 10-year extension of the availability of $2.5 billion in expired State Children's Health Insurance Program funds; and $161 million in 2004 to establish a fund for the uninsured that would grow to $50 billion over 10 years. The budget attributes $11.2 billion in savings to the federal government over 10 years from a cap on medical malpractice damage awards, which has yet to gain Senate approval. The Senate was expected to vote on the budget today, but deliberations could continue into the weekend.
In other legislative news, senators have reached a compromise on a Republican-backed smallpox compensation bill that threatened to stall over Democrats' concerns that it was too stingy. The compromise would eliminate a proposed $262,000 cap on compensation for workers permanently injured from smallpox vaccination and raise a proposed lifetime cap on awards for those with less serious injuries to $262,000 from $50,000. Last month, the House rejected a similar Republican-backed bill, saying it wasn't generous enough. -- by Jeff Tieman and Tony Fong