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Finance Panel Quietly Postpones Hearing on HHS Nominees

With all the focus on (and delays surrounding) the Senate Finance Committee’s health reform bill, the outcome of another Senate health care controversy has been put on hold. In the past week, the finance panel has twice postponed hearings to examine two White House nominees for positions in the Health and Human Services Department.

The issue made headlines last month when Republicans threatened to block confirmation of all 10 pending HHS nominations unless the White House rescinds its prohibition on private insurers lobbying their customers against the Democrats’ health reform plans. The administration’s so-called “gag order” arrived after Humana, the insurance giant, sent letters to enrollees in its Medicare Advantage plans warning them that the Democrats’ health reforms would force “millions of seniors and disabled individuals” to lose “important benefits and services.” The letter urged seniors to get in touch with their lawmakers opposing the bill, which would cut MA subsidies by $117 billion over 10 years.

The order prohibiting such notices riled Senate GOP leaders, who said the move violated First Amendment rights. Although MA sponsors are contractually bound to have HHS review such communications to seniors regarding their plans, Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.) said last month that the First Amendment “absolutely” takes precedent over contract agreements.

GOP leaders have vowed to delay all HHS nominations until the gag order is repealed.

That’s bad news for HHS, which is navigating the most intense health reform debate in decades without some of its key officials in place. Jim Esquea, the nominee for HHS assistant secretary for legislation, and Bryan Samuels, tapped to become HHS commissioner on children, youth and families, were scheduled to appear before the Finance Committee both last Thursday and this morning regarding their pending nominations. Both hearings were postponed as a result of the debate over the panel’s $829 billion health reform legislation.

Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) has scheduled a committee vote on that bill for next Tuesday. No word yet on when the HHS nominees will finally get their day before the panel.

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