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October 18, 2002

HHS secretary praises UI Hospitals research

From: Cedar Rapids Gazette, IA
Oct. 18, 2002

By James Q. Lynch
The Gazette

IOWA CITY -- Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson praised research being done at the University Hospitals on cochlear implants, asthma and smallpox vaccinations and thanked Rep. Jim Leach, R-Iowa, for help to double health care research funding.

Thompson, who toured the general clinical research center at UI Hospitals on Thursday, called the $3.7 billion increase in National Institutes of Health (NIH) funding approved by the House a "momentous step forward" in the search for solutions to numerous health problems.

The UI research center has been operating with NIH funds for 41 years.

He was not optimistic that the Senate will approve a House-passed bill to raise Medicare reimbursement rates for Iowa health care providers. Leach and other Iowa congressmen voted for the plan to increase Iowa Medicare reimbursement by $123 million.

Thompson agreed with Iowa Republicans, who Thursday morning called on Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., to take action on a Medicare reimbursement rate and a prescription drug benefit before the Senate recesses until after the election.

Medicare was also the topic at a news conference Thursday morning with State Rep. Chuck Larson Jr., R-Cedar Rapids, Republican Party of Iowa chairman, and James Tinker, president of Mercy Medical Center in Cedar Rapids. Thompson was not at the Larson and Tinker conference at Mercy.

Larson urged Daschle to put "our senior citizens above politics by first passing a Medicare bill that provides prescription drug coverages and strengthens our health care safety net before hitting the campaign trail."

Tinker said an increase in Medicare reimbursement rates is necessary to make the same level of services and care available to Iowans as to seniors in other states.

Iowa hospitals get more than half of their revenue from Medicare, Tinker said, but because of the disparity in reimbursement rates, they get 93.5 cents for every $1 of care the provide.

The disparity makes it hard for Iowa hospitals to recruit and retain professional staff, Tinker said. Mercy has continuing vacancies on its staff of up to 20 percent because it can't match pay scales in other states, he said.

Labor costs accounted for about 73 percent of the Medicare reimbursement rate when it was established, said Thompson, who as governor of Wisconsin sued the Clinton administration to change the rate. He agreed the low reimbursement rate hurts Midwest health care providers.

However, Thompson doubts Gov. Tom Vilsack's threat to sue him will be effective.

"Any time you are able to highlight the discrepancies and disparities, it's well taken," he said. "But what I think we need to do is to convince other people because there is a finite amount of money. We need to figure out how to hold the other states harmless and bring up the Midwestern states, to get us closer to parity.

"That's what (Leach) and I are working on," he said.

In a statement Thursday, Leach's opponent, Democrat Julie Thomas of Cedar Rapids, questioned his commitment to improving Medicare reimbursement.

© 2002 by Gazette Communications - Cedar Rapids, IA