Congress is taking steps to improve U.S. health care
by U.S. Senator Jon Kyl
Last session, Congress took up the issue of health care reform but did not complete action on major legislation. In the upcoming session, we will again strive to make health plans more accountable and responsive to patients' need for greater choice, quality, and access. Congress did, however, pass a number of smaller, more targeted pieces of legislation that should improve the quality of care received by many Americans.
Through the Balanced Budget Act of 1997, Congress extended the solvency of the Medicare trust fund to 2007, and introduced more choice and competition into Medicare. The Medicare Choice program, which is scheduled to go "on line" Jan 1, 2000, will give seniors several options in addition to the current traditional Medicare and Medicare HMOs. Those choices include Medicare Medical Savings Accounts (MSAs), preferred providers organizations (PPOs), and provider sponsored organizations (PSOs).
The most important point is that seniors who like their current coverage won't have to do anything to retain it. While the Clinton Administration's Health Care Financing Administration has incurred delays and some problems in the implementation of the new choices, in the long term these changes will give seniors more choices of plans, more benefits, and lower out-of-pocket costs.
Assuring Life-Saving Technologies
The Biomaterials Assurance Act, will make it easier for manufacturers of medical devices to obtain the raw materials necessary for health-enhancing and life-saving medical implant devices. This new law will enhance the quality of life of roughly 7.5 million citizens a year who depend on these devices for health and life.
Tax Credit for Research
The Congress reauthorized the research and experimentation tax credit, which stimulates private research, investment, and innovation. The result is new health-care procedures, devices and technologies which enable Americans to continue to enjoy the best health care services and products in the world.
Consistent with consumer safety, the Food and Drug Administration Reform Act will help streamline and shorten the drug and device approval process. This will bring new medical technology more quickly from the drawing board to the patient.
User Fees for Drug Approval
In order to help reduce backlogs in the drug and device review process, Congress reauthorized the Prescription Drug User Fee Act. The act imposes a fee--agreed to by the pharmaceutical companies - that allows the FDA to hire more drug and device reviewers, which will shorten, consistent with safety, the drug approval process and bring new medicines and treatments to patients more quickly.
Legislation passed in the 105th Congress allows health providers better access to information about how medicines and devices may be used for life-saving and health-enhancing purposes, other than those for which they were originally approved by the FDA.
Health Care Tax Deduction for the Self Employed
Congress accelerated the phase-in of health insurance deductibility for the self-employed. The full 100 percent deduction will be allowed in 2003 instead of 2007. The deduction is phased in as follows: 60 percent in 1999 through 2001, 70 percent in 2002, and 100 percent in 2003 and thereafter.
There is much left to be done in the 106th Congress. For instance, the Senate Finance Committee is scheduled to investigate the problem of Medicare HMO withdrawal. And Congress will again look at broader health care reform to ensure that all Americans continue to have a choice of quality health-care options at a price they can afford.
In the meantime, these small legislative accomplishments I've described here should be of some help.