March Madness came early to the health reform effort as the President and Congress announced an ambitious timeline for crafting legislation and signing it into law. The administration also released a special report and a new website aimed at supporting this effort. Finally, the President signed the FY 2009 appropriations bill into law, thus completing the work left unfinished by the 110th Congress.

Timeline Set for Healthcare Reform

At a forum on health reform held on March 5, 2009, for members of Congress, community leaders and stakeholders, and hosted by the White House, President Obama stated that "our goal will be to enact comprehensive healthcare reform by the end of the year." Following this announcement, House Committee Chairs Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) and George Miller (D-Calif.) pledged to send healthcare reform legislation to the House floor for consideration prior to the August recess -- generally following the legislative timeline proposed by Finance Committee Chair Max Baucus (D-Mont.) for the Senate. On the same day, a bi-partisan group of House moderates kicked off the legislating tsunami with the introduction of the "Healthy Americans Act" (H.R. 1321) aimed at reforming the insurance market and delinking healthcare coverage from employment.

Jurisdiction over healthcare in the House is shared among three primary committees: Energy and Commerce, chaired by Rep. Waxman; Ways and Means, chaired by Rep. Rangel; and Education and Labor, chaired by Rep. Miller. Reform elements currently under consideration by the committees include addressing Medicare payment policy within the broader context of a national health reform bill.

Sen. Baucus and Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Chair Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) are spearheading health reform efforts in the Senate. In November 2008, Sen. Baucus released an 89-page blueprint outlining specific options and goals for reforming healthcare that include a "play or pay" mandate for employers of a certain size and tax credits for individuals and small employers who purchase private insurance coverage. See the November 13, 2008, issue of the Health Law Update. Building on a number of discussions with stakeholders, Sen. Baucus is expected to hold a series of "roundtable discussions" on overhauling and paying for healthcare reform, with the goal of sending a bill to the Senate floor in July.

HHS Releases Special Report; Launches New Website

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) released a report summarizing the results of some 30,000 participant surveys and 3,200 group reports of those who hosted and participated in the Transition Team's healthcare discussion initiative. See the December 11, 2008, issue of the Health Law Update. Not surprisingly, the cost of healthcare services and health insurance ranked among the top concerns of those who took part in the initiative.

Additionally, a new website dedicated to the administration's effort -- www.healthreform.gov -- was launched this month by HHS for the purpose of soliciting proposals, questions and comments on healthcare reform.

FY 2009 Spending Bill Signed Into Law

Completing work left undone by the 110th Congress, President Obama signed the FY 2009 Omnibus Appropriations Act (Pub. L. 111-8) into law on March 11, 2009. Included in the $410 billion Appropriations Act are funding increases for the National Institutes for Health (3.2 percent), the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (11.2 percent) and Title VII health professions programs (14.3 percent). Since October 1, 2008, programs within HHS have been operating at prior funding levels under a continuing resolution.