Health Bill Would Impact Food, Drug Industries

The health insurance system isn't the only thing getting revamped should Congress pass a health bill; both the Senate and the House bills include provisions that might mean big changes for the food, drug and medical devices industries.

One of the more unlikely changes in the health care overhaul bill has to do with vending machines. Nutrition advocates want people to realize how many calories there are in non-diet sodas, potato chips and snack cakes. And there's a sentence in both the House and Senate bills that says that vending machine operators would have to provide that information on the machines.

Steven Grossman blogs about the Food and Drug Administration and is a consultant for companies and patients' groups. He used to work on Capitol Hill, and he's seen this happen before: A few marginally related sentences get added to a giant bill, with no debate.

"As one sentence in a 2,000-page bill, it will never get that level of attention. It will happen, and if it's a mistake one only hopes someone will go back and rectify it later," he says.

Financial Burden

The vending machine folks don't really like the labeling provision. Ned Munroe of the National Automatic Merchandising Association is concerned about the costs, especially in a down economy.

"When you have fewer people buying the snacks and then add on this additional cost of having to label, it's pretty expensive. If with our machines the operator has to label every snack on every spiral on every machine in every factory in America — it's going to cost jobs," said Munroe.

A venture of that size would cost not only jobs, but also money. The trade group estimates implementing the changes in the bill would cost it $56 million.

Promoting Health

Another decision in the health insurance bill would affect chain restaurants from McDonald's to Applebee's. All chain restaurants would have to post calorie counts for their products. In some states, they already have to.

It may seem that rules about vending machines and chain restaurants don't belong in a bill overhauling the nation's health care system. But Michael Jacobson of the consumer advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest says it definitely does.

"Because they will actually promote health," he says. "Most of the rest of the legislation will pay for people who are sick, but having calorie information prominently posted will reduce the obesity problem."

And if health problems go down, presumably health costs will, too.

Generic Drugs

Another potential cost saver has been hotly debated for years: a provision that would allow manufacturers of generic drugs to make cheaper versions of high-tech biologic drugs, called follow-on biologics.

This provision has been close to passage several times but always blocked by a detail or two not acceptable to the biotech companies or the generics' manufacturers. Putting it into a larger bill like the health care overhaul bill may be the only way to get it through, says Grossman.

"I don't think it's a matter that could help or hurt the bill," he says. "The bill is going to be either adopted or not based on things that have nothing to do with follow-on biologics."

The bill addresses other issues not directly related to how you get health insurance. One proposal is to tax medical devices like heart valves and stethoscopes. But none of these provisions seem to have a high public profile. So whether they stay, go or change will be a matter of what the interest groups can do behind the scenes in the coming months.

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