Medicare reform still stalled

Tuesday, September 30, 2003

WASHINGTON - The conference committee trying to reconcile the House and Senate versions of Medicare reform legislation was bogged down in a dispute over a rural hospital provision in mid-September.

Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Ia., wants more money for hospitals in rural hospitals. Bill Thomas, R-Calif., does not. The reluctance of the Thomas camp to budge on this issue so angered Grassley that he pulled his staff people out of the reconciliation talks in protest.

In the meantime, the president is calling for a bill on his desk by Oct. 7.

“But everything is still up in the air,” said Cara Bachenheimer, a healthcare attorney at Epstein Becker & Green in Washington.

Industry observers believe very little progress was made during the August recess. Members got back to reconciling the two chambers legislative interests early last month.

Before Grassley returned to Washington, VGM’s vice president of government relations, John Gallagher, said the senator expressed confidence in the eventual production of a Medicare bill.

“He said he may be overoptimistic,” said Gallagher, “but he also wondered how Republicans could go back and justify [the failure to produce a bill] to voters when we had the White House, House and Senate.”

Gallagher believes that eventually, the president will have to play a more public role in the reconciliation of House and Senate versions of Medicare reform that include very different levels of participation by the private sector.

“The president can make something happen because it will give enough cover to everyone else,” said Gallagher. “That’ll be good for us because he supports the Senate bill, including the CPI freeze.”