President Bush last week signed off on a $388 billion spending bill that included $375 million for HHS in 2005, but did not include an amendment to scrap controversial overtime regulations.
The president also signed a bill extending the J-1 visa waiver program allowing state health agencies to annually hire up to 30 foreign doctors to practice in underserved areas.
Just before Thanksgiving, the House and the Senate approved the omnibus spending bill setting most of the federal government's domestic funding levels for the remainder of fiscal 2005, which began Oct. 1. The bill allots $375 million to HHS (Nov. 29, p. 8). But as lawmakers were about to send the bill to the White House for President Bush's signature, someone noticed a buried provision giving Congress' appropriations committees the power to review individual tax returns, which are typically off-limits to anyone outside the Internal Revenue Service.
The Senate passed a resolution shortly before Thanksgiving to scrap the provision, but House Democrats delayed a vote on it until Dec. 6 in order to review the bill and make sure "nothing else got snuck in," said a Democratic staff member for the House Appropriations Committee. Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), the House Democratic leader, blamed Republican leaders for pushing through what she called a "martial law rule," forcing members to vote on the bill the same day it was presented rather than giving legislators three days, as required by House rules.
The Senate Finance Committee also expressed concern about the IRS provision, saying in a letter to the House and Senate appropriations committees that they jeopardized the passage of the spending bill with its inclusion and overstepped their jurisdictional boundaries. While the appropriations committees oversee the IRS budget, committee members must get approval from the House Ways and Means or Senate Finance committees to visit IRS facilities, where returns can be seen.
The letter also said appropriators infringed on the finance committee's jurisdiction when they suspended the so-called "75% rule" that designates which hospitals qualify as rehabilitation facilities and receive higher Medicare reimburse rates.
The spending bill includes $3 million in funding for the Health Care that Works for All Americans Act, authored by Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah). Under the legislation, a series of town hall meetings will be held next year to get comment from Americans on ways to reform and improve the healthcare system. Congress will then hold hearings on recommendations. Omitted from the bill was an amendment to scrap overtime regulations that went into effect during the summer. Critics had argued the new regulations would deny workers, including nurses, overtime pay.
Separately, the J-1 visa waiver bill signed last week extends the program allowing foreign doctors trained in the U.S. to stay here for two years without having to return home if they agree to practice in medically underserved areas for three years. The program expired on May 31.