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Health Bill Would Impact Food, Drug Industries

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Health Bill Would Impact Food, Drug Industries

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Health Bill Would Impact Food, Drug Industries

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

We're getting used to seeing opponents of health overhaul hold up what looks like a thick phone book and say, hey, in fact, this is the health care bill. The Senate and House bills are each about 2,000 pages long. There's a lot about revamping the health insurance system, but NPR's Joanne Silberner also found items in there that had more to do with food or drugs or medical devices.

JOANNE SILBERNER: One of the more surprising changes in the health overhaul bill has to do with this�

(Soundbite of banging)

SILBERNER: �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 owners would have to provide that information on vending 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.

Mr. STEVEN GROSSMAN (Blogger): As one sentence in a 2,000-page bill, it will never get that level of attention. It'll happen, and if it's a mistake, one can only hope somebody will go back and rectify it later.

SILBERNER: The vending machine folks also hope the problems would be fixed. They don't really like the provision. Ned Monroe of the National Automatic Merchandising Association is concerned about the costs of labeling vending machines, especially in a down economy.

Mr. NED MONROE (National Automatic Merchandising Association): When you have fewer people buying the snacks and then add on this additional cost of having to label, it's pretty expensive. If our machines, if the operator has to label every snack at every spiral in every machine in every factory in America, it's going to cost jobs.

SILBERNER: And money - by the trade group's estimate: $56 million.

And there's another decision in the health insurance bill aimed at food. It would affect chain restaurants, from McDonald's to Applebee's. They'd have to post calorie counts for their products. In some states, they already have to.

Now, 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 they definitely do.

Mr. MICHAEL JACOBSON (Center for Science in the Public Interest): Because they will actually promote health. Most of the rest of the legislation is paying for people who are sick, but having calorie information prominently posted will help people stick to diets, lower calorie intake, hopefully reduce the obesity problem.

SILBERNER: And thus, presumably health care costs.

Another potential cost saver has been hotly debated for years. It would allow manufacturers of generic drugs to make cheaper versions of high-tech biologic drugs, drugs called follow-on biologics. This provision has been close to passage several times, always blocked by a detail or two not acceptable to the biotech companies or the generic manufacturers. Putting it in a larger bill like the health overhaul bill may be the only way to get it through, says Food and Drug expert Steven Grossman.

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

SILBERNER: There are other issues not directly related to how you get health insurance. One proposal is to tax medical devices, from stethoscopes to heart valves. None of the provisions have a high public profile. So whether they stay or go or change will be a matter of what the interest groups can do in the coming months behind the scenes.

Joanne Silberner, NPR News.

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