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Lawmakers sound off on health-care ruling

A federal judge in Virginia has ruled that a key part of the health-care reform bill signed into law earlier this year is unconstitutional because Congress can’t require people to buy health insurance.

Virginia Attorney General Kenneth Cuccinelli had brought this case as soon as President Obama signed the Affordable Care Act in March, and told the Washington Post today that today’s ruling “won’t be the final round, as this will ultimately be decided by the Supreme Court, but today is a critical milestone in the protection of the Constitution.”

As you’d expect, the Bay Area’s Congressional delegation – most of which solidly supported the Affordable Care Act – isn’t happy with the ruling.

“Today’s ruling is the exception among more than dozen court cases decided that have questioned any provision of the Affordable Care Act. In every other case, both Republican and Democratic appointed judges have ruled that the law is constitutional and that Congress did not exceed its authority,” House Education and Labor Committee Chairman George Miller, D-Martinez, said in a news release.

“It is clear that opponents of this historic law are working overtime to take affordable health care away from our nation’s families and put insurance companies back in control,” he said. “But just as challenges against Social Security and Civil Rights Act failed, I am confident that the law to guarantee that all Americans have access quality and affordable care will stand up to the legal attacks from special interests.”

House Ways and Means Health Subcommittee Chairman Pete Stark, D-Fremont, was – as usual – even blunter.

“Apparently Republicans are now for judicial activism after they were against it,” Stark said. “Unfortunately, we already know what happens if this lawsuit succeeds. Millions of Americans will lose their health insurance, premiums will go up for working families, and more people will be forced into bankruptcy when they get sick.”

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CalPERS praises health care reform’s effects

California Public Employees Retirement System (CalPERS) CEO Anne Stausboll wrote today to U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius thank her for the department’s swift implementation of health care reform, which she said has helped the pension fund’s enrollees in several ways already.

CalPERS is the nation’s largest non-federal purchaser of health benefits in the country, and Stausboll wrote in her letter that – thanks to the health care reforms signed into law earlier this year – more than 27,000 young adults were added to their parents’ health plans effective next month, resulting in a premium increase of less than 1 percent. CalPERS also removed lifetime limits from all plans that previously had included them, she wrote.

And Stausboll wrote that CalPERS joined a program that aids early retiree health plans to keep premium costs down; this program helped hold premiums to their lowest increase in 14 years, and CalPERS estimates savings of about $200 million for more than 115,000 early retirees and their families.

All this is music to the ears of Congressional Democrats.

“Already, tens of thousands of families across California – and millions of Americans – are seeing the concrete benefits of health reform,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, said in a news release. “The Patient’s Bill of Rights in health reform is now protecting Americans from the worst abuses of the insurance industry, such as lifetime limits, and CalPERS is showing us the real, human impact of these and other reform provisions.”

House Ways and Means Health Subcommittee Chairman Pete Stark, D-Fremont, said the letter proves the reforms already are paying dividends just months after becoming law. “Republicans have pledged to repeal the health reform law and undo these consumer protections,” he said. “This is a dangerous prospect for nearly 1.3 million Californians in CalPERS who would be hurt.”

House Education and Labor Committee Chairman George Miller, D-Martinez, agreed. “Repealing these historic reforms, as Washington Republicans have pledged to do, will take away basic health benefits that Californians count on and take hard-earned money right out of their pockets. Californians, and all Americans, simply cannot afford the radical Republican repeal agenda.”

Sebelius blogged about the letter, writing that “we’re seeing similar signs of progress across the country … And in the months to come, we look forward to working with CalPERS and employers across the country to implement this new law and make sure all Americans can get the care they need.”

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Dems tout health insurance premium rebates

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services issued a final regulation today that it estimates will save insured Americans up to $4.9 billion in cash rebates, lower premiums or increase benefits over the next three years, and Democrats are crowing.

The new regulation is part of the so-called ‘medical-loss ratio’ provisions contained in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act – the healthcare reform bill – that President Barack Obama signed into law in March. Those provisions demand that most insurers spend at least 80 to 85 percent of consumers’ premiums on health care, instead of on advertising, CEO bonuses, and other administrative costs not related to health care’s quality.

To Democrats, this looks like ammunition for the coming Congress, in which a Republican House majority hopes to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

“Repeal this?” House Education and Labor Committee Chairman George Miller, D-Martinez, asked in his news release. “Republicans in Washington have pledged to repeal the health care law. If they succeed, they will be taking money right out of the pocket of millions of average Americans. They might think that’s a good idea but I certainly don’t. So let’s just be very clear about what’s at stake when Republicans call for the repeal of the new health care law.

Miller said the new regulation is good news for Americans who are paying too much in health insurance premiums – some of which have been raised by double digits even while insurers report billions in profits.

“But make no mistake about it — repealing the health reform law will take money directly out of consumers’ pockets,” he said.

House Ways and Means Health Subcommittee Chairman Pete Stark, D-Fremont, issued a news release that said more than 20 percent of consumers are now in plans that spend more than 30 cents of every premium dollar on administrative costs, while 25 percent more are in plans that spent 25 to 30 cents on such costs.

Pete StarkOnce this new regulation takes effect, he said, up to 74.8 million insured Americans will be protected from excessive insurer spending, and up to 9 million may be eligible for rebates starting in 2012, worth up to $1.4 billion and possibly averaging as much as $164 per person in the individual market.

“By pledging to repeal health reform, House Republicans would eliminate this important protection and allow insurance companies to continue unlimited spending on CEO bonuses, profits and lobbying – and less on patients’ health care,” Stark said. “The Republican response to today’s announcement will be telling. Will they stand with working families or the health insurance industry?”

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Today’s Congressional odds and ends

Jerry McNerneyMcNerney touts GOP endorsements: One day after the National Republican Congressional Committee named 11th Congressional District GOP nominee David Harmer one of its “Young Guns,” incumbent
Rep. Jerry McNerney, D-Pleasanton, announced he has the endorsements of three prominent local Republicans: Danville Mayor Mike Doyle, Tracy Councilman Steve Abercrombie and former Manteca Mayor and Councilman Jack Snyder. “Jerry McNerney has done more for our veterans than anyone else that I’ve worked with,” Doyle said in McNerney’s news release. “From fighting to keep the Livermore VA in veterans’ hands to supporting the renovations of the Danville Veterans Hall, Jerry McNerney has shown that he’s willing to work across the aisle and will get the job done for our community.”

Lee praises SBA pick: Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Oakland, congratulates Elizabeth Echols, 50, of Oakland, on her appointment as Region IX Administrator for the Small Business Administration, charged with overseeing the SBA’s programs and services in California, Nevada, Arizona Hawaii and Guam. Echols is CEO of OpNet Community Ventures, Inc., a nonprofit dedicated to promoting opportunities in the technology industry for low-income young adults, and held several political appointments in the Clinton White House and Commerce Department. “I don’t believe the SBA could have made a better selection,” Lee said. “Elizabeth recognizes the role the SBA has played in helping pull our nation out of the recession. Elizabeth understands that small business is the engine that drives our nation’s economy, and that providing small businesses with support and resources is key to creating good-paying, sustainable jobs and, ultimately, to our economic recovery.”

Miller preps for child nutrition markup: House Education and Labor Committee Chairman George Miller, D-Martinez, chaired a hearing yesterday on bipartisan child nutrition reauthorization legislation introduced earlier this month to improve children’s health, increase access to healthy meals, and create more year-round meal opportunities for children; Miller announced plans to markup HR 5504, the Improving Nutrition for America’s Children Act, when Congress returns after the July 4th recess. “We need to get our country back on a pathway of healthy eating and healthy living – this starts by not only ensuring our children are eating healthy meals in schools, but also teaching them healthy habits that will last them a lifetime,” he said in a news release today. “This bill is a great opportunity to improve our school meal programs, to meet children’s nutritional needs at every venture and to change the future of this country.”

Lawmakers vote to limit Afghanistan funding: Lee and Miller joined Rep. Pete Stark, D-Fremont; Rep. John Garamendi, D-Walnut Grove; Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Hillsborough; Rep. Mike Honda, D-San Jose; and Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-San Jose, in voting Thursday for Lee’s amendment to the Supplemental Appropriations bill that would have denied additional funds for the war in Afghanistan except for money that would be needed to ensure the safety of troops in the field as they are preparing to redeploy. The amendment failed on a 100-321 vote. McNerney and Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Palo Alto, voted against the amendment, while Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-Petaluma, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, didn’t vote.

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UC Berkeley speakers boycott gains steam

Add State Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Gloria Romero, D-Los Angeles, to the list of speakers who have withdrawn from commencement activities at the University of California, Berkeley due to ongoing labor strife.

Gloria RomeroRomero, also a candidate for state Superintendent of Public Instruction, had been scheduled to keynote the UC Berkeley Latino Student ceremony this Saturday; a labor union issued a statement today in which Romero said she’ll honor a boycott called by Cal workers and student groups.

“It was with a heavy heart that I informed the UC Berkeley students and dedicated faculty and staff that I would not appear to deliver my remarks in person. What an irony I would have seen: on one hand, students in robes celebrating the overcoming of obstacles and staking their claim in the American Dream; on the other hand, I would have seen Latino workers—perhaps their own uncles and aunts, holding picket signs asking this internationally acclaimed university to simply pay them a living wage so that the graduates’ younger ‘hermanitos’ could one day attend the same university,” Romero said in her statement.

Others who have chosen to honor the boycott include former Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg, who had been scheduled to address graduating political science students on Monday, and author Karen Joy Fowler, who had been scheduled to address graduating English Department students next Sunday, May 23. Rep. Loretta Sanchez, D-Garden Grove, earlier this week cancelled her June 12 appearance at UC Riverside’s College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences graduation ceremonies, saying her family roots are in organized labor and she won’t cross a picket line to speak.

American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 3299 – which represents more than 20,000 UC service and patient care workers and which announced Romero’s withdrawal – said the boycotts have been called in part due to mandatory reductions in hours for low-wage service workers, such as custodians and food service workers – cuts of 4 to 6 percent in take-home pay, when some were already making as little as $24,000 a year.

“These cuts have been devastating for low-wage workers,” said AFSCME 3299 President Lakesha Harrison. “Layoffs and reduction in hours are only the tip of the iceberg. UC executives are now proposing massive cuts to our retirement. We may be facing a double whammy – a depletion of our savings now and a gutting of the income we were counting on for our future.”

The UC Berkeley speakers boycott also been called by the Union of Professional and Technical Employees; CWA Local 1 (UPTE 1) represents UC research support and technical workers.

And that’s not the only Cal labor strife that’s getting political attention this week. House Education and Labor Committee Chairman George Miller, D-Martinez, wrote a letter yesterday to UC President Mark Yudof expressing his concern about the university’s failure to come to an agreement with the union representing its 6,000 post-doctoral scholars – a topic on which he held a committee field hearing just a few weeks ago.

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Stark, Miller urge insurers to ban rescission now

Hours after House leaders including two East Bay members sent a letter calling upon seven major health insurers to immediately end rescission – the practice ending someone’s coverage when he or she gets sick – ahead of new health care reform requirements kicking in soon, the nation’s largest health insurer did just that.

Wellpoint – parent company of Blue Cross and Blue Shield affiliates across the nation, including Anthem Blue Cross in California – issued a statement saying it will end the practice May 1.

“Rescissions, while rarely used, are one process insurers employ to reduce fraud and protect members,” the company said in its news release. “The standard contained in the federal legislation requires insurers not to rescind policies except in cases of fraud or intentional misrepresentation of material fact. WellPoint welcomes greater uniformity among insurers in this area.”

But although Wellpoint already had been the first insurer to embrace another part of the new health care reform bill – extending coverage to policyholders’ dependents up to age 26 – its move on rescission comes just one week after the company was widely berated for what many called an egregious abuse. Reuters reported the company had been using a computer algorithm that automatically targeted every policyholder recently diagnosed with breast cancer, triggering an immediate fraud investigation as the company searched for some pretext to drop their policies.

Among the House leaders who signed the letter to health insurers earlier today were Education and Labor Committee Chairman George Miller, D-Martinez, and Ways and Means Health Subcommittee Chairman Pete Stark, D-Fremont. Stark later issued a statement saying Wellpoint’s rapid response today means “the race is on.”

“WellPoint took the first step, now it’s up to the other insurance companies to show they’re serious about making health reform work,” he said. “They need to end rescissions, and put in place a system where every proposed cancellation is reviewed by an independent third party.”

UPDATE @ 11:19 A.M. WEDNESDAY: UnitedHealthcare announced this morning it’s also ending its use of rescissions immediately, ahead of the new law’s Sept. 23 impelementation date.
“In the spirit of the recently passed health reform legislation, UnitedHealthcare moved quickly to eliminate the practice of rescissions, except in cases of fraud or intentional misrepresentation of material fact,” said President Gail Boudreaux. “We continue to find ways to ensure that the new health care reform law can be implemented effectively for the benefit of all Americans and achieve broader access to quality health care.”