First Edition: December 22, 2011

Today's early morning highlights from the major news organizations, including articles on the Capitol Hill stalemate that threatens to cut Medicare payments to doctors and government efforts to keep details of a research experiment on bird flu secret.

Kaiser Health News: New Year, New Health Care Battles (Video)
Kaiser Health News reporters detail some of the major issues they expect will be in the news in 2012, including the GOP's fight to repeal the federal health law and what Republicans may offer instead; states' efforts to control growing Medicaid costs; the rising cost of health care for consumers (12/21). Watch the videos.

Kaiser Health News: Needle-Exchange Programs Face New Federal Funding Ban
Kaiser Health News reporter Sarah Barr writes: "Federal funding for syringe- exchange programs -- a controversial concept that public health advocates have long argued prevents the spread of HIV and other diseases -- is about to be prohibited once more, just two years after Congress lifted a 21-year ban" (Barr, 12/21). Read the story.

The Los Angeles Times: U.S. Leaders Say They Are Hard At Work On Payroll Tax
With no endgame in sight to prevent a looming payroll tax hike, President Obama and congressional leaders took turns trying to convince Americans that they were hard at work to save the tax break -; even though Congress has essentially closed for the holidays. ... But finding consensus is easier said than done. Republicans and Democrats remain at odds over how to pay for the legislation, which would cost $200 billion for a full year. The package would extend the 2-percentage-point reduction on the payroll tax workers contribute to Social Security that has been in place all year and that expires Dec. 31. It also would continue unemployment insurance for 3 million jobless Americans and shield doctors who treat Medicare patients from a 20% pay cut (Mascaro and Hennessey, 12/21).

The New York Times: Obama Gets A Lift From Tax Battle With Republicans
After a long stretch of high unemployment, legislative turmoil and, in turn, slipping public approval, President Obama seemed to regain his political footing this week with the help of House Republicans, whose handling of a standoff over payroll taxes had even leading conservatives accusing them of bungling the politically charged issue (Calmes, 12/21).

The Washington Post: House Republicans Face Pressure On Extension Of Payroll Tax Cut
Obama called Boehner on Wednesday to urge him again to allow a vote on the Senate-passed measure, which also would extend unemployment benefits and avert a cut in the reimbursement rate for doctors who treat Medicare patients. If the payroll tax holiday is not renewed, about 160 million Americans would feel it in their pocketbooks next year; the average worker would pay about $1,000 more over the course of the year. Boehner showed no signs of caving to the pressure, either from Obama or his own allies (Kane, 12/21).

Politico: Payroll Tax Cut: GOP Frosh Dig In Hard
The freshmen argued that a one year extension is vastly preferable to a two-month extension (never mind that some in their party didn't and don't want to see the payroll tax holiday extended at all) and that they want an agreement between the House and Senate that provides certainty to middle class taxpayers and to the patients and physicians hoping Congress would come through a fix to Medicare reimbursement rates. And they're convinced that their argument will prevail with the public. They were defiant-;even as friendly venues like the Wall Street Journal editorial page took House Republicans to task for what they called a political "fiasco" (Cogan, 12/21).

The Washington Post: In Kansas, Gov. Sam Brownback Puts Tea Party Tenets Into Action With Sharp Cuts
If you want to know what a Tea Party America might look like, there is no place like Kansas. In the past year, three state agencies have been abolished and 2,050 jobs have been cut. Funding for schools, social services and the arts have been slashed. The new Republican governor rejected a $31.5 million federal grant for a new health-insurance exchange because he opposes President Obama's health-care law. And that's just the small stuff (Gowen, 12/21).

USA Today: Obama Campaign Promotes Health Care Law
Obama's re-election campaign is putting together videos promoting the Affordable Care Act, the landmark law that is the subject of both a major Supreme Court case and next year's election. "Spread the news about how health care reform is working for seniors," says one video on how the plan is closing the "doughnut hole" in prescription drug assistance (Jackson, 12/21).

The Wall Street Journal: Two Lawyers Strike Gold In U.S. Disability System
Lawyers Harry and Charles Binder began representing applicants for Social Security disability benefits in the 1970s, when the field was a professional backwater. Last year, their firm collected $88 million in fees for guiding clients through the system, government data indicate, making it the nation's largest Social Security disability advocate by far (Paletta and Searcey, 12/22).

The New York Times: Security In Flu Study Was Paramount, Scientist Says
The National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, concerned about bioterrorism and a worldwide pandemic, has for the first time ever urged scientific journals to keep details out of reports that they intend to publish on a highly transmissible form of the bird flu called A(H5N1), which has a high death rate in people. Working with ferrets, researchers on the virus at two medical centers -; Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, in the Netherlands, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison -; are investigating genetic changes that may make the virus more easily transmittable to people. Doreen Carvajal spoke with Ron A. M. Fouchier, the lead researcher at the Erasmus Center (Carvajal, 12/21).

The Wall Street Journal: Bird-Flu Data Spur Alarm
Federal officials are drafting a plan to govern access to a pair of studies on a deadly strain of flu virus after asking two scientific journals to withhold details of the research over concerns the information could be used in bioterrorism (Weaver and Wang, 12/22).

The New York Times: Walgreen Facing Big Loss In Fight With Express Scripts
The historically steady growth of the Walgreen Company's business of filling prescriptions is likely to drop off sharply next year, as the pharmacy giant faces the imminent loss of millions of customers who use the pharmacy benefits manager Express Scripts. Express Scripts and Walgreen have been battling over payment issues for months. Walgreen said Wednesday that it has been unsuccessful at getting most of its customers who have their drug coverage managed by Express Scripts to switch to another pharmacy benefit manager, or P.B.M. (Japsen, 12/21).

Chicago Tribune: Walgreen Shedding Express Scripts
Unable to reach a deal with pharmacy benefits manager Express Scripts by year's end, Walgreen Co. President and CEO Greg Wasson told investors Wednesday, "We're locked and loaded, and we're moving on. "Walgreen, the largest U.S. drugstore chain, has been battling with Express Scripts since June 21, when Walgreen said the companies could not agree on terms for a new contract (Wernau, 12/22).

The New York Times: Health Fears Over Suspect French Breast Implants Spread Abroad
Health officials in at least a half-dozen countries are grappling with the intense anxiety of tens of thousands of women who received breast implants that were made in France with substandard silicone -; and that have been rupturing at unusually high rates. ... None of PIP's implants appear to have been sold in the United States (de la Baume and Jolly, 12/21).


http://www.kaiserhealthnews.orgThis article was reprinted from kaiserhealthnews.org with permission from the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. Kaiser Health News, an editorially independent news service, is a program of the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonpartisan health care policy research organization unaffiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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