WASHINGTON A panel of U.S. lawmakers voted on Thursday to prohibit the federal government from "denying or rationing" medical care based on studies comparing medical drugs and devices.
The U.S. House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee passed the Republican-sponsored amendment, despite objections from Democrats. It is a potential win for drug and medical device makers, which argue that such comparison studies could favor cheaper treatments.
The panel is debating its version of legislation winding its way through Congress to overhaul the $2.5 trillion healthcare system, aimed at expanding coverage and cutting costs.
The current House bill sets up a federal center for comparative effectiveness research.
"Alarmingly, the bill has no restrictions on how the federal government can use this research," said Republican Michael Rogers of Michigan, the amendment's sponsor.
"Comparative effectiveness research is about general average assumptions," not about individuals seeking unique treatment, he said.
House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman and several other Democrats objected to the amendment, but then let the measure pass on a voice vote without taking roll-call. Democrats hold a majority on the panel.
Backers of comparative effectiveness, who include insurers and large employers, say the government-funded research is crucial for learning which treatments work best because manufacturers have little incentive to compare their products with those of competitors.
The medical product industry contends that comparative effectiveness research will favor older, cheaper therapies and that the results could be used to deny insurance coverage.
The Senate is expected to include comparative effectiveness language in its healthcare reform bill. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus backs establishment of a nonprofit corporation for the research, but it would be barred from issuing practice guidelines or coverage recommendations for insurers.
The Energy and Commerce panel was expected to continue debating the bill late into the evening and continue Friday, with more than 350 amendments to be considered.
After a week of Democratic infighting over the bill, the last of three House panels restarted debate on it Thursday.
The conservative "Blue Dog" Democrats had objected to the legislation's cost, but were appeased on Wednesday, winning changes such as boosting small-business exemptions and, liberals say, weakening a public plan option that would compete with private insurers.
Democratic conservatives on the panel still won't vote for a bill that exceeds $1 trillion in cost, according to Baron Hill, an Indiana Democrat and member of the group.
"There are more changes to this bill that are going to be made to make this bill more palatable," Hill said. "If it's not under $1 trillion, then I'm not going to vote for it."
The group's ideas, some criticized by more liberal Democrats, are likely to be considered during debate on Friday.
The House panel may wait until Friday to consider a closely watched amendment that would give biotech drugmakers 12 years of marketing exclusivity, free of generic competition.
Manufacturers of brand-name biotech drugs have been pushing for a period of 12 to 14 years before generic copies of their medicines can win approval. Generic drugmakers, consumer groups and their allies are pushing for 5 to 7 years.
The panel voted to return to states authority to prosecute overly aggressive marketing allegedly conducted by for-profit Medicare plans. Critics allege some plans have aggressively and deceptively marketed to seniors. Unitedhealth and Humana Inc are among the biggest sellers of these private Medicare plans.
Backers of the move said states would be more effective in going after plans if they defraud senior citizens who sign up for the plans.
"It's very important that we return this authority to the states to investigate consumer complaints, and otherwise hold them accountable," Democrat Kathy Castor of Florida said.
Democratic lawmakers have conceded that healthcare legislation will not be finished before their August recess, the target date proposed by President Barack Obama.
(Reporting by Kim Dixon; Additional reporting by Lisa Richwine and Susan Heavey; Editing by Steve Orlofsky, Gary Hill)