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Ellen Corbett named to Senate Budget Committee

State Senate Majority Leader Ellen Corbett will serve out her final year in the Legislature with a seat on one of its most vital committees.

Ellen CorbettCorbett, D-San Leandro, was named to the Senate Budget and Fiscal Review Committee on Wednesday, and will chair its Health and Human Services subcommittee; the appointment made by the Senate Rules Committee takes effect immediately. The 16-member committee must analyze the state budget proposal that Gov. Jerry Brown offered this month.

“I look forward to working closely with all stakeholders to ensure that the state budget process continues to be transparent and constituent-oriented,” Corbett said in a news release.

She said she’s confident she and her colleagues can produce a final budget “that is both reasonable and ensures that the best interests of Californians are protected,” particularly in her subcommittee’s area. “After previous years of cuts to important health and human services programs, I look forward to approving a budget that minimizes the short- and long-term impacts to the most vulnerable segments of our population, including children, seniors and adults with developmental and other disabilities.”

Corbett also is campaigning this year to unseat fellow Democrat Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Pleasanton, in the East Bay’s 15th Congressional District.

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$122.3 mil in grants to California health centers

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services today announced almost $122.3 million in grants awarded to California community health centers – including about $24.9 million in the greater Bay Area – under the Affordable Care Act health care reform law.

Grantees estimate these awards will help them serve approximately 166,504 new patients. But it’s also a potent crowd-pleaser in a presidential campaign year.

“President Obama’s health care law is making community health centers in California stronger,” HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said in a news release. “For many Americans, community health centers are the major source of care that ranges from prevention to treatment of chronic diseases. This investment will expand our ability to provide high-quality care to millions of people while supporting good paying jobs in communities across the country.”

Funding totaling more than $728 million across the nation will support renovation and construction projects, boosting health centers’ patient capacity and creating jobs. The Affordable Care Act provides $9.5 billion to expand services over five years and $1.5 billion to support major construction and renovation projects at community health centers. A new report released today shows the law already has supported construction or renovation of 190 health center sites and creation of 67 new sites across the nation. Employment at community health centers nationwide has increased by 15 percent since the start of 2009, and such centers now serve almost three million more patients.

The grants announced today are from two capital programs: One will provide about $629 million to 171 existing health centers across the country for longer-term projects to expand their facilities, improve existing services, and serve more patients. The other will provide about $99.3 million to 227 existing health centers to address pressing facility and equipment needs.

For a list of the California recipients, read after the jump:
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State health exchange taps 1st executive director

An Obama Administration official who has been working to shore up federal health programs will come to California later this year to run the state’s new Health Benefit Exchange.

Peter Lee in October will become the HBE’s first executive director. The exchange – created pursuant to last year’s national health care reforms, and set to open in 2014 – will aim to make it easier for individuals and small businesses to compare plans and buy health insurance on the private market through a more stable risk pool, greater purchasing power, more competition among insurers and detailed information regarding about the price, quality and service of health coverage.

Lee currently is deputy director for policy and programs at the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation, an agency created by the Affordable Care Act to revitalize and sustain Medicare, Medicaid, and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP).

Exchange chairwoman and California Health and Human Services Secretary Diana Dooley called Lee “a nationally respected leader in health care who has led innovative projects aimed at promoting health, improving care quality and reducing cost in the health care delivery system.”

“His more than 25 years of health policy experience and deep understanding of California’s challenges and opportunities make him the right leader to ensure the success of our new health insurance marketplace,” she said.

Before his current job, Lee was director of delivery system reform at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Health Reform, supporting implementation of parts of the Affordable Care Act dealing with delivering higher quality, more affordable healthcare.

Earlier yet, Lee was CEO and then executive director for national health policy of the San Francisco-based Pacific Business Group on Health, a coalition of private and public purchasers. Before that, he was executive director of the Center for Health Care Rights, a Los Angeles-based consumer advocacy group. In the 1980s, he worked on healthcare issues in Washington, D.C., including a stint as director of programs for the National AIDS Network. He holds a law degree from the University of Southern California and his undergraduate degree from the University of California, Berkeley.

“Congratulations to Peter in his new role creating a new consumer-friendly marketplace of the future, to dramatically help Californians to get affordable health coverage,” Health Access California Executive Director Anthony Wright said in a news release. “Peter has been a longtime champion of large purchasers using their bargaining power to get the best value in coverage and care. It’s appropriate he will lead the effort to allow millions of Californians to pool together to bargain for the best price and value with the insurance industry.”

Wright said picking Lee shows the exchange not only has authority to negotiate with insurers for the best value, but plans to actively use it. “Peter Lee will have the opportunity to structure a market where insurers compete based on cost and quality, customer service and wellness, rather than how effectively they avoid people who need care, and confuse the rest of us with the complexity of their benefits.”

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Advocates sue for ruling on medical marijuana

A coalition of marijuana advocates sued the federal government today for failing to act on their nine-year-old request to “reschedule” the drug under the federal Controlled Substances Act to recognize its medicinal uses.

The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, accuses the government of unreasonable delay in violation of the Administrative Procedures Act, and asks the court to force the Drug Enforcement Administration to answer the rescheduling petition – filed in 2002 – within 60 days.

“The federal government’s strategy has been delay, delay, delay,” said Joe Elford, chief counsel of Oakland-based Americans for Safe Access and the lead attorney in today’s action. “It is far past time for the government to answer our rescheduling petition, but unfortunately we’ve been forced to go to court in order to get resolution.”

A previous cannabis marijuana rescheduling petition filed in 1972 went unanswered for 22 years before being denied.

Marijuana is listed among the most-restricted drugs under federal law; drugs on this list are deemed to have a high potential for abuse, no currently accepted medical use in the United States, and a lack of accepted safety under medical supervision.

The coalition argues scientific studies around the world have provided ample evidence of marijuana’s therapeutic value. The lawsuit also knocks the DEA for railing to answer the petition despite an interagency advisory issued by the Food and Drug Administration in 2006 and a 41-page memo from the Department of Health and Human Services later that year.

The DEA’s formal rejection of the petition would let the coalition go to court to directly challenge the federal government’s claim that marijuana has no medical value.

The American Medical Association and the American College of Physicians have urged the government to review marijuana’s scheduling, and the National Cancer Institute (part of the National Institutes of Health) earlier this year added marijuana to its website as a “complementary alternative medicine.”

Medical marijuana has been decriminalized in 16 states including California plus the
District of Columbia, and poll show high public support for it.

“It is unacceptable for seriously ill Americans to wait a decade for their government to even respond to their petition for legal access to medicine to relieve their pain and suffering,” said Dale Gieringer, who directs the California branch of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). “The government’s unreasonable delay seriously impugns its competence to oversee Americans’ health care. The administration should act promptly to address its obsolete and bankrupt policy in accordance with President Obama’s pledge to put science above politics.”

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Dave Jones helps HHS tout healthcare reform

California Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones joined U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius this morning on a teleconference to roll out a new HHS report showing how much families and businesses can save on health insurance premiums and out-of-pocket costs under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, the health care reforms signed into law last year.

The report says that with the creation by 2014 of state health exchanges, marketplaces where individuals without coverage through their employers can shop for insurance at competitive rates:

  • Middle-class families purchasing private insurance in the new State-based Health Insurance Exchanges could save as much as $2,300 per year in 2014.
  • Tax credits provided by the Affordable Care Act will lead to even greater savings. For example, in 2014, a family of four with an income of $33,525 could save as much as $14,900 per year since they will also qualify for tax credits and reduced cost sharing.
  • In 2014, small businesses, on average, could save up to $350 per family policy and many may be eligible for tax credits of up to 50 percent of their premiums.
  • The tax credits are already available to small businesses, and cover 35 percent of their premiums. For example, a firm with 10 workers who earn an average of $20,000 annually could currently receive credits of $35,000 annually. These tax credits could save small businesses $6 billion in 2010 and 2011.
  • All businesses will likely see lower premiums of $2,000 per family by 2019, which could generate millions of dollars in savings.
  • “If we repeal the law as some in congress have proposed, families and small business owners will pay the price,” Sebelius told reporters on the conference call, saying the nation mustn’t return to the days when rising costs put heavier burdens on family budgets and business balance sheets.

    Sebelius said some insurers are already reporting increased enrollment as they inform their small business clients of the tax credits made available under the new law.

    Dave JonesJones said the report underscores the importance of moving forward with implementing the Affordable Care Act, which he called “one of the most significant legislative accomplishments of the last 50 years.” He noted that California is the first state to pass legislation under the Act to establish its health care exchange.

    Jones also noted the new law requires that children with pre-existing conditions no longer can be denied coverage; he noted that California parents with uninsured children should enroll them before March 1 to take advantage of a lower open-enrollment rate.

    Jones earlier this week had announced that the state Office of Administrative Law approved his request for an emergency regulation giving him authority to enforce the 80 percent Medical Loss Ratio in the individual market established under the Affordable Care Act – meaning California’s individual insurers must now spend at least 80 percent of their premium revenues on medical services rather than profits, marketing and overhead.

    UPDATED @ 12:59 P.M.: U.S. Senator Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, the ranking member on the Senate Finance Committee, said this:

    “This report is as deeply flawed as the $2.6 trillion health law that the American people continue to oppose. The facts from the government’s own budget experts are clear. According to the Administration’s actuary, health care costs for the nation will rise faster under this new law, despite the White House’s claim. Every American remembers President Obama’s pledge to reduce health costs by $2,500 for families, but the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office has found the President’s health care law will increase premiums by $2,100 for families purchasing coverage on their own. House Republicans have listened to the people and acted to repeal this disastrous, budget-busting health law. Now it’s time for the Senate to act as well.”

    But, from Rep. George Miller, D-Martinez, the ranking member on the House Committee on Education and the Workforce:

    “Today’s report confirms that the increased competition and consumer protections in the reform law will lower health insurance premiums for millions of American families and businesses. At a time when budgets are already stretched thin by rising costs, this is one more example of how families and businesses are benefiting from the health care law and can ill afford the reckless Republican effort to repeal it.”

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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.”