Good medicine: These health-care proposals can make a difference

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Spring cleaning is a good time to clear out items that have been collecting dust around the house, a situation that also is true at the people's house, the state Capitol in Harrisburg.

Four pieces of health-care legislation that contain nearly identical language have passed in the House and in the Senate, but legislators should reconcile any differences and enact them now before the bills get tangled up in the wheeling and dealing of budget negotiations in June.

That's what happened last year to the Pennsylvania Health Care Cost Containment Council, known as PHC4, the neutral, nonpartisan advocate for holding down the cost of medical treatment. This state agency needs to be reauthorized by the Legislature periodically or it goes out of business. That nearly happened last year because its future was tied to proposals for expanding health insurance coverage and helping doctors pay for malpractice insurance.

Gov. Ed Rendell kept the council alive by executive order, but a stronger lifeline is warranted. The agency issues quarterly reports on hospital performance on 50 common procedures, annual reports on heart surgery success and rates of hospital-acquired infection and other studies. Last August, the American Journal of Medical Quality estimated that its public reporting process prevented 1,500 deaths in one year. Both House Bill 173 and Senate Bill 89 would keep PHC4 going until 2014, eliminating any annual uncertainty for this healthy body.

The other three legislative proposals that also need attention are:

• Expansion of COBRA coverage so Pennsylvanians who work for businesses with fewer than 20 employees but lose their jobs will be able to continue to purchase group health benefits through their former companies. The departing employees would have to pay for the coverage, but temporary assistance is available for qualified individuals because of federal stimulus funds. Without a change in state law, eligible state residents will miss out on that federal aid. Senate Bill 442 passed that chamber, and House Bill 1089 was amended last week.

• Extension of parents' health insurance plans so their children can be covered up to age 30. SB 189 and HB 838 would allow parents to continue to pay for coverage for their adult dependent children under their own group plans. Seventeen other states already have extended the age limit.

• Exclusion of reimbursements to hospitals when patients experience so-called "never events," errors that are serious, preventable and should never happen such as operating on the wrong patient or performing the wrong procedure. The state Department of Public Welfare has prohibited hospitals from billing Medicaid in such instances since January 2008. SB 443 and HB 84 would mean other health insurers would not have to reimburse hospitals under these circumstances.

Each of these measures already has received overwhelming and bipartisan support from legislators. It shouldn't take long for the House and Senate to work together and turn the bills into law.



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