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GOVERNMENT WATCH

HOUSE PASSES CLONING BAN – SENATE UNDECIDED

The House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly – 241 to 155 – to ban all forms of human cloning, passing Dave Weldon's (R-FL) Human Cloning Prohibition Act of 2003. Given President George W. Bush's support of the bill and his pledge to veto any lesser ban, as reported by Reuters Health, it appears that the future of cloning in the US is in the Senate's hands.

Meanwhile, the Senate is considering two versions of a cloning ban – one that is identical to the House bill and one that bans cloning for reproductive purposes but allows for nuclear transplantation, which creates stem cells for research purposes (see March's “Government Watch” column for details). Both are being reviewed by Senate committees and, although Majority Leader Bill Frist, MD, has voiced support for a total cloning ban, neither bill may have enough votes to pass.

One clause of the House bill that concerns some experts, according to Reuters sources, is a ban on the importation of cloned human embryos. Some fear that this clause could be used to penalize US citizens who go abroad for stem cell therapies that use cloned cells.

If legislators fail to reach an agreement on a cloning law, the US could go another year without a law against even the reproductive cloning of humans – which most experts agree should not be attempted at this time.

BUSH DETAILS MEDICARE PLAN – OFFERS SENIORS A CHOICE

President Bush released a few more of the long-awaited details to his Medicare reform plan in March – although specifics, such as premium and deductible costs, are not available yet. The plan would create three health options that seniors could choose from, each with different benefits and costs. All three would include some form of prescription drug benefit. Furthermore, the President is calling for Congress to enact immediate prescription drug assistance for Medicare beneficiaries – a discount card that should save 10 to 25 percent of prescription drug costs as well as a $600 subsidy for low-income seniors.

In addition to traditional Medicare – with the prescription drug discount card added – the following options will be available:

Enhanced Medicare: Similar to federal employees' health benefits, this option allows full choice of doctors and hospitals, using a preferred provider system, with a standard deductible. It also includes coverage of preventative benefits, subsidized drug coverage, and protection against high out-of-pocket costs for long-term hospitalization.

Medicare Advantage: In this managed care option, health plans will bid to provide Medicare benefits under the theory that a competitive market will reduce health care costs or increase available benefits for seniors. This plan is expected to minimize out-of-pocket costs.

Although President Bush did bow to pressures to include a prescription drug benefit in all of his Medicare options – and not just the privatized ones – many feel that it will not provide enough coverage for those in traditional Medicare programs, and could force beneficiaries to choose private plans in order to get adequate drug benefits, according to the New York Times. The President expects the additional Medicare plans to be available starting in 2006.

THOMPSON ANNOUNCES 2003 HHS GOALS

Addressing Congress, Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Tommy Thompson outlines his goals for the $539 billion HHS budget – a figure that represents a 7 percent increase from 2002. Top priorities include closing the gaps in Medicare and Medicaid coverage to improve health care for the elderly and uninsured – goals that concord with President Bush's own health care plan.

While he did not detail his plans for the 10 year, $400 billion Medicare reform that he and the President are developing, he did stress that a prescription drug benefit for seniors – especially those with low incomes – will be included. He also touted a collection of Medicare chronic illness care initiatives aimed at coordinating the care of chronic illness among the many specialists and other health care providers that treat them, which should lead to more effective and cost-efficient care. He estimated that 78 percent of Medicare beneficiaries have a chronic illness, and that their treatment accounts for 99 percent of Medicare spending.

He also stressed that anti-bioterrorism measures are a priority. To this end, President Bush created Project Bioshield, a 10 year, $6 billion homeland security project that will focus on vaccines and treatments for biological weapons that could be used to attack Americans.