Eye on Washington

August 1, 2004

Tackling threats from dirty air, mad cows, and food allergens

August: When elected officials flee the capital city. The District's climate is miserable, and anyway there are nominating conventions to attend and voters to woo and vacation time to enjoy with the family. The weeks before summer recess saw opponents of same-sex marriage quarrel about how to word a proposed constitutional amendment forbidding it; then the drive failed in the Senate and they dropped their effort—for the time being. The House almost passed an amendment to the Patriot Act that would have deleted provisions allowing the Federal Bureau of Investigation to track citizens' reading habits, but the change lost out in a 210-to-210 tie vote.

Renewal of welfare reform legislation is hung up in a bitterly partisan battle over funding for child care. The much-touted drug discount cards for Medicare recipients are something of a bust and although there is great pressure to do something to control the price of drugs, the question is so hotly contested that nothing has actually been accomplished in this arena, either. Nor has Congress been able to agree on patients' rights legislation that might give legal recourse to patients when managed care companies refuse to pay for treatment that a physician deems medically necessary. State-level attempts to provide that opportunity to patients were struck down by a Supreme Court ruling in June.

The presidential campaign features competing solutions to the health-care crisis, which at least means the issue will be getting attention throughout the Fall. There's many a slip, however, between campaign promises and legislative accomplishments. Overall, Congress hasn't accomplished a great deal this session—particularly so in regard to domestic policy that affects the well-being of children and families.

But even when Congress and President are out of town, the federal government continues to affect children and families:

•The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) last month sounded a warning about unhealthy air that creates respiratory problems and premature death for close to 100 million residents of 243 counties that do not meet national standards for fine-particle pollution. The sootiest counties, according to the EPA report, are in Maryland and New Jersey. Final air quality standards, which the EPA plans to release in November, will give states until 2010 to 2015 to clear their air—or face penalties that include restrictions on federal highway funds and limits on future growth.

• The Office of the Inspector General (OIG) of the Department of Health and Human Services has concluded that pharmaceutical manufacturers are overcharging public clinics and hospitals for low-income patients' medications. The practice is illegal under the Public Health Service Act but, says the OIG, the law has no teeth. A proposed remedy? OIG has asked the Public Health Service to develop a legislative proposal that will establish penalties and fines for when facilities covered by the Public Health Service Act are overcharged.

• The Department of Health and Human Services is moving to keep the public a little safer from bioterrorist threats when the federal government orders 25 million doses of anthrax vaccine later this summer. The feds also plan to purchase a new form of medication that utilizes antibodies to treat the disease. And the Department of Defense has announced a major expansion of its program to vaccinate all soldiers and essential civilians in the Middle East and South Korea against smallpox and anthrax.

• A bipartisan group of 58 senators registered their opposition to the administration's ban on funding for embryonic stem cell research with a letter to the president urging him to loosen funding restrictions. A planned appearance at the Democratic convention by Ron Reagan, son of the late president, will include a similar pitch.

• A Congressional staff survey shines a spotlight on the practice of using juvenile detention facilities to warehouse thousands of psychiatrically ill children. The survey, presented at a hearing of the Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs, found that children as young as 7 years were incarcerated because they had no access to mental health care. Seventy-one detention centers that responded to the survey in 33 states said they were holding mentally ill youngsters with no legal charges against them.

• The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is making progress on preventing the spread of bovine spongiform encephalitis (a.k.a. mad cow disease) with a new ban on feeding of any animal parts to any farm animals—not just cows. The more stringent policy is in public-comment phase and is unlikely to take effect until 2005, if then, according to a spokesperson for the Center for Veterinary Medicine at the FDA.

• If a bill that mandates labeling of eight of the most common food allergens in plain English passes the House, children with food allergies will be safer. Plain language would, for example, mean saying "milk" instead of "whey," "ghee," "lactalbumin," and so on, a practice that is common on labels.

Judith Asch-Goodkin
Contributing Editor