Prescription drugs dominated the House agenda, as the Ways and Means and Energy and Commerce committees were marking up legislation for a full House vote next week, the American Enterprise Institute held a chilling forum on the next wave of litigation against the industry, and Senator Ted Kennedy, as promised, launched a new effort toward universal coverage.
And while all of that was going on, we were active in talking with the states about addressing their exploding Medicaid budgets and the uninsured.
On Monday, The Heritage Foundation held a forum where state legislators from around the country gathered to hear from colleagues, like Sen. Richard Bennett of Maine, about a plan to create an “insurance exchange” to provide a bigger pool for individuals and employers to purchase private health insurance. They also heard from Utah’s Ron Betit about his state’s program to scale down Medicaid’s rich benefit package for some in order to provide coverage for more people.
White House Health guru Dr. Mark McClellan and Medicaid administrator Dennis Smith discussed the Bush administration’s efforts to give states more flexibility in managing their Medicaid programs. I spoke on the importance of seizing opportunities to turn benefits into dollars to allow beneficiaries to get private health insurance.
Toward that goal: State Rep. Tom Koch in Vermont, chairman of the Health and Welfare Committee, has succeeded in getting legislation signed to begin a demonstration project to voucherize Medicaid dollars. This is a feat anywhere, but especially in the People’s Republic of Vermont!
On Tuesday, AEI held a chilling forum featuring scholars Jack Calfee and Michael Greve on “Pharmaceuticals and the New Litigation.” Jack went down the list of the many classes of cases that already are being filed against the industry. Greve warned that the pharmaceutical industry is going to be the next target of all 50 attorneys general to try to extract gargantuan settlements from the industry, bigger than the tobacco settlements. The room was packed, and the audience was stunned at how big this could be.
The same day, Sen. Kennedy spoke before the National Press Club with his vision for universal coverage, including an employer mandate. While 98% of the members of the National Association of Manufacturers already provide health insurance, for example, they will fight mightily against the government’s efforts to strip them of their flexibility over whether and how to provide that coverage.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about Kennedy’s speech was his strong endorsement of new information technologies to inject efficiency into the health sector and his praise of pharmaceutical innovations. “None of us wants to kill the goose that lays the golden egg with price controls or other heavy-handed actions that could reduce the flow of investment dollars and the research that could lead to new cures,” Kennedy said. A critical goal.
And I am writing this from New Mexico where I met with economists Harry Messenheimer and Ken Brown of the Rio Grande Foundation, who are working hard to inject market sense into this economically depressed, over-taxed state. I spoke on Thursday before a group of conservative leaders, including state legislator Joe Thompson, about tools and techniques for moving toward a more market-driven health system.
One participant reported talking with a young mother of two who was painfully poor but was late for an appointment because her four and five year olds were getting crowns on their baby teeth – paid by Medicaid.
Finally, the Journal weighed in on Wednesday with a lead editorial about protecting against the threat of a smallpox attack in “The Public Health Priesthood,” saying: “The government can continue with the current policy, which is to wait until an outbreak occurs and then hope federal agencies do a better job than their floundering with anthrax. Or it can offer citizens the choice to get vaccinated now, dramatically decreasing the chances of a mass outbreak.” Exactly.