Jan. 4, 2007 -- Democrats promised swift action on a series of health issues as the 110th Congress was sworn in Thursday.
Democrats took control of both houses of Congress for the first time since 1994. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., the new Speaker of the House, has already promised swift votes on two health measures within the first 100 hours of business.
The House is scheduled to vote next Thursday on a repeal of White House restrictions on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. Democratic leaders say they'll follow that vote with another giving the federal government the authority to negotiate directly with drugmakers for lower prices in the Part D prescription drug program.
The stem cell bill would lift rules that limit taxpayer research funds to a handful of cell lines and instead fund widespread studies through the National Institutes of Health.
But that vote could be largely symbolic. Congress passed an identical measure last spring, only to see President Bush use the first veto of his presidency to prevent it from becoming law. President Bush has made no indication that he would sign the bill this year.
Medicare Price Negotiations
The White House is also opposed to government price negotiations for prescription drugs. Currently, private insurance companies deal separately with drugmakers; backers of the system point to the fact that Part D premiums remain lower than expected as the program enters its second year.
The Bush administration today issued a warning that government negotiation damages seniors' ability to purchase drugs at most neighborhood pharmacies.
"Were the government to negotiate prices directly in an attempt to obtain lower prices, access to drugs would likely be restricted," read a statement released by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Thursday.
But House Democrats appear to have the votes they'll need to pass the bill. The Senate is likely to use the next few months to come up with a more detailed policy, says Sen. Olympia Snow, R-Maine, who supports government price negotiations.
"There is certainly merit to making sure the government is getting the very best deal," Snowe tells WebMD.
Mental Health Issues, Drug Safety
Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., is set to take over the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee, which has jurisdiction over most health policy. Kennedy, along with several Republicans, has promised to push legislation forcing insurers to offer equal coverage for mental and physical diseases.
The committee is also likely to push legislation reforming the way the FDA regulates drug safety.
Analysts say the new Congress is unlikely to take any immediate action on rapidly rising overall health care costs.
Health and the Presidential Campaign
Thomas P. Miller, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, says major policy shifts addressing the 40 million American adults who lack medical insurance will likely wait until after the next presidential elections.
"It's unlikely it will be solved now, so it becomes a 2008 issue," he says. "Frankly, it's unlikely to happen in 2009, either."
Ken Thorpe, a health policy analyst at Emory University, predicts Congress will spend the next two years "laying the groundwork for 2008" on health care costs.
"The good news is, it's back on the agenda. We haven't had this debate for the last six years," says Thorpe, who has advised Democratic candidates on health policy.
AARP, the powerful seniors' lobbying group, said in a statement Thursday it would begin tracking lawmaker's voting records and reporting to members "how their elected officials voted -- throughout the session."