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Begich Health Reform Amendments Tackle Alaska Needs

Pending bill has provisions on Medicare, workforce development, access to health care, preventing health disparities and cost containment

As negotiations continue this week on a sweeping health reform bill pending in Congress, U.S. Sen. Mark Begich on Dec. 15 highlighted several pending provisions to help Alaskans. He pointed to amendments he has introduced or co-sponsored, as well as other provisions in the legislation.

"We're getting close to final floor action on this landmark legislation and I want Alaskans to know the pending bill includes lots of good news for us," Begich said. "The naysayers must not understand how this bill helps Alaska."

He pointed to Alaska-specific items he introduced after seven town halls, three roundtables and countless meetings and conversations with Alaskans over the past year.

"We know Alaska has a problem with Medicare doctors turning away patients - and this bill helps address that," Begich said. "We need more health care providers in our state and better access to care in our communities - and we must rein in the overall costs of medical care. This bill tackles each of those issues."

Begich said health reform is necessary because the status quo is not acceptable in Alaska. An estimated 133,000 Alaskans do not have health coverage today. Family insurance premiums more than doubled this decade and are projected to double again to nearly $25,000 in 2016, consuming more than 40 percent of family income. Alaska families with insurance currently pay a "hidden tax" of $1,900 annually to pay for care for those without health coverage.

"I didn't come to Washington to delay or to defend the status quo," Begich said. "This bill will save lives, save money and save Medicare. I have decided to be part of the solution and to make sure this bill benefits Alaskans," he added.

Here are some of the Alaska provisions addressed in Begich-proposed amendments or included in the pending Senate bill:

Fixing Medicare by expanding the workforce, paying higher reimbursements

·         More Medicare providers - A pending Begich amendment creates a pilot program to attract newly graduated doctors, nurses, physician assistants and other providers to urban Alaska (and other states) by offering loan repayments of $50,000 or cash payments of $37,500 annually for three years for seeing mostly Medicare patients.

·         More providers in general - The same Begich amendment will increase loan repayments from $35,000 to $50,000 annually for National Health Service Corps provider across the country. The program serves Health Professional Shortage Areas, including 77 in Alaska. Sen.  Begich also proposes that faculty who teach physician assistants will qualify for loan repayments - part of a pending provision that will open up the bottleneck at medical programs and increase the health workforce. 

·         Higher payments for Medicare providers - Sen. Begich strongly supports a section in the bill that pays a 10 percent bonus to Medicare providers who see mostly primary care patients. He also was an original sponsor of S. 1776, which would have ended the broken Medicare reimbursement formula and paid providers higher rates. That bill is still pending, but a provision to revoke a scheduled 21 percent pay cut in Medicare is included in the underlying Senate reform bill.

Improving access to health infrastructure and coordinating care for veterans

  • Hospital care close to home -Begich's pending amendment extends a Medicare project supporting hospitals in smaller communities and rural states. This allows facilities in Soldotna, Juneau and Sitka to offer needed services and treat more patients in their own communities. The program will now be available in 20 states and expand nationally from 15 to 30 participating hospitals.
  • Better coordination in Alaska - Another pending Begich amendment calls for federal health care agencies to assess and improve access to care in Alaska. Lack of primary care and specialists is a problem, especially for members of the military, their dependents and veterans.  A task force will develop a strategy for improvement and report to Congress.
  • Assistance to remote clinics - A pending Begich amendment provides extra staffing and equipment for isolated frontier clinics serving seriously ill or injured patients. The program ensures round-the-clock access to needed emergency care in frontier areas.
  • Support for community health centers - The Senate bill substantially increases funding for federally qualified health centers (FQHCs), which provide primary care in underserved areas. An estimated 80,000 Alaskans get care at FQHCs, including the Anchorage Neighborhood Health Center.

Preventing chronic disease, addressing health disparities, supporting IHS

  • Child fitness promoted - Sen. Begich introduced a bill and amendment to end tax deductions for prescription drug advertising. He would use the new revenue to fund a family tax deduction for the cost of enrolling children in programs meeting national exercise guidelines. If the amendment is not accepted, Begich said he will continue to work on what he refers to as the PLAY Act (Physical Lifestyles for America's Youth).
  • Commitment to prevention -Begich strongly supports provisions in the bill to eliminate co-pays or deductibles for preventive care such as basic checkups or cancer screenings. The bill also creates a trust fund to improve and sustain programs promoting wellness and community-based prevention.
  • Support for Indian Health Service - The bill protects Alaska Natives from penalties for not acquiring insurance, expands coverage to other public programs and recognizes and promotes innovations such as Southcentral Foundation's Nuka Model of Care. In addition, Senator Begich is committed to permanent reauthorization of the Indian Health Care Improvement Act, and full funding for IHS and tribal health contracts.

Paying for reform, protecting small business and reining in health care costs

  • Insurance and drug industry reforms -Begich has co-sponsored and is advocating for major amendments to require insurance companies to devote bigger percentages of premiums to health care rather than profits, to require the federal government to negotiate lower prescription drug prices, and to allow Americans to buy cheaper prescription drugs from Canada and other countries.
  • Small business improvements - The Senate bill creates a web-based marketplace for small businesses wanting to purchase health insurance, along with $27 billion in tax credits to help pay for premiums. It exempts small businesses with fewer than 50 employees from shared health insurance responsibilities. About 96 percent of small businesses nationally are exempt.
  • Major cost containment - Senator Begich told the Senate Finance chairman he would not support a bill that didn't scale back health care costs, and then joined other freshmen Democrats in finding a solution. Their accepted and widely praised cost containment amendment will cut costs to consumers, increase value and innovation in the health care system and, according to the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO), save hundreds of millions of dollars.

For more information go to Sen. Begich's website at http://begich.senate.gov/public/index.cfm?p=HealthCare

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