New Congress to tackle prescriptions, other healthcare issues

senateBy CHRISTOPHER LEE, The Washington Post

WASHINGTON - Healthcare is to return to the national political stage in 2007, setting up partisan clashes in Congress that could end with rare vetoes from President Bush and help define the 2008 presidential campaigns.

Here is a look at parts of the healthcare agenda in the new Congress:

Medicare prescription drug price negotiations. Proponents, mainly Democrats, say repealing a provision in the 2003 Medicare drug benefit law and forcing the Bush administration to negotiate with drug companies over prices could save billions of dollars a year.

Opponents favor the current system, in which private insurers negotiate prices with drug companies.

They say government negotiations would amount to price controls, be logistically difficult and might reduce seniors' choice of drugs.

Stem cell research. In July, Bush used the only veto of his presidency so far to quash a bill that would have lifted federal funding restrictions on embryonic stem cell research. Advocates in both parties say the bill will pass again -- but many expect another veto.

State Children's Health Insurance Program. There is bipartisan support for reauthorizing this 10-year-old program that provides health coverage to more than 4 million children whose families do not qualify for Medicaid but cannot afford insurance on their own. The fight will be over how much money to add to the $5 billion that the federal government now spends annually on the effort.

Health information technology. Both the House and Senate approved bills in the last Congress to promote the use of electronic health records and other information technology. But disputes over privacy concerns and potential financial conflicts of interest if hospitals sold such technology to their doctors scuttled attempts to reconcile the two bills. Lawmakers say they are confident that they can win bipartisan final approval in the 110th Congress.

Drug safety. Lawmakers of both parties have said the Food and Drug Administration has fallen short in monitoring drug safety. Leaders of the Senate health committee have signaled that they will push for changes on that front when the panel considers reauthorizing a law that allows the FDA to collect fees from drug companies to expedite the new drug-approval process.