50-plus lawmakers signal strong support for Harkin law

Momentum is building in Congress to strengthen one of the AOA's top health reform wins, the Harkin nondiscrimination provision.

"Securing these letters of support from top House and Senate leaders is yet another crucial step that we are taking..."

The Harkin law—PHSA Section 2706—bars health plans from discriminating against optometrists and other providers based on their license. Earlier this year, Congress called on federal agency officials to scrap subregulatory guidance that was deemed misleading and undermining of the bill's intent. The guidance, issued as frequently asked questions (FAQs), was supposed to be corrected within 30 days.

When lawmakers learned the guidance hadn't been fixed yet, they took an unprecedented step. At the urging of the AOA, they sent three joint letters to the heads of the Departments of Health and Human Services, Labor and Treasury this summer. In the letters, 14 senators—many representing leadership positions on key Senate committees—joined 37 House members in urging federal officials to correct the FAQs and bring them into line with the law's true intent.

Leading the charge, the AOA worked closely with its coalition partners (Patients' Access to Responsible Care Alliance) to reach out to members of Congress regarding signing on to these letters. At each step of the process, organized medicine and the health insurance industry has opposed efforts to enact and then fully implement the law.

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), author of the original Harkin provision and chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee, spearheaded one of the letters (AOA member login required) and worked with AOA to gain signatures from fellow committee members. Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) organized another Senate letter (AOA member login required) that included the signature of Senate Majority Whip Richard Durbin (D-Ill.). And Rep. Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.) led the effort in crafting another AOA-backed letter from House members (AOA member login required). 

"Securing these letters of support from top House and Senate leaders is yet another crucial step that we are taking to ensure that the only federal provider nondiscrimination law ever passed in this country is fully and fairly implemented and that it works exactly as the AOA and Congress intended," says Mitchell T. Munson, O.D., the AOA's immediate past president. 

Stephen Montaquila, O.D., past-president of the Rhode Island Optometric Association (RIOA) and chair of the AOA Third Party Executive Committee, helped direct the RIOA's efforts in convincing Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) and Jack Reed (D-R.I.) to sign on to the letters. 

'"When the AOA Washington office reached out to us and confirmed our fears that the government's subregulatory guidance was seriously flawed and posed a serious threat both now and in the future, we immediately got to work," says Dr. Montaquila.

How you can support the Harkin law
Backed by this strong support of the Harkin law from Capitol Hill, the AOA is calling on members to take the following actions:

  • Carefully monitor the implementation of the Harkin law in their respective states;
  • Report abuses of the law to the AOA's Washington office and to state association leaders;
  • Thank the lawmakers in their respective states for signing on to these letters; and
  • Encourage lawmakers who have yet to show support to send a letter of their own.

To learn more about this issue or to find out how you can help, email Matt Willette, assistant director for federal government relations at the AOA's Washington office.

July 30, 2014

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