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Labels and Gay Benefits in Health Bill

By Robert Pear - The New York Times

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Labels and Gay Benefits in Health Bill

WASHINGTON — Lower taxes for gay couples who receive health benefits from employers. Nutrition labeling requirements for snack food sold in vending machines and many restaurants. A new program to teach parents how to interact with their children.

Those are some of the little-noticed provisions in a mammoth health care bill taken up Saturday by the House of Representatives.

The main purpose of the bill is to make health insurance readily available to all Americans. To that end, it would expand Medicaid and provide hundreds of billions of dollars in subsidies to help moderate-income people buy insurance.

As a high-priority bill for Congressional leaders and President Obama, the legislation has become a vehicle for many other initiatives large and small.

Supporters of gay rights have long been trying to change the tax treatment of health benefits provided by employers to the domestic partners of their employees. In effect, such benefits are now treated as taxable income for the employee, and the employer may owe payroll taxes on their fair-market value.

Under the bill, such benefits would be tax-free, just like health benefits provided to the family of an employee married to a person of the opposite sex.

Representative Jim McDermott, Democrat of Washington, who proposed the change, said it would “correct a longstanding injustice, end a blatant inequity in the tax code and help make health care coverage more affordable for more Americans.”

Joseph R. Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, a gay rights advocacy group, said federal tax law had not kept up with changes in the workplace.

“I meet people all the time who are gratified they work for companies that offer domestic partner benefits,” he said. “But they pass on the benefits because they cannot afford the taxes that go with the benefits.”

M. V. Lee Badgett, a labor economist at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, said employees with domestic partner benefits paid $1,100 a year more in taxes, on average, than married employees with the same coverage.

Another provision of the bill would establish the new labeling requirements for vending machines. Anyone who owns or operates 20 or more vending machines would have to “provide a sign in close proximity to each article of food or the selection button that includes a clear and conspicuous statement disclosing the number of calories contained in the article,” the bill says.

Margo G. Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a research and advocacy group, said the data would be helpful.

“People do not realize that some orange juice has as many calories as sugar-sweetened soft drinks,” Ms. Wootan said. “Some granola bars have as many calories as candy bars.”

The National Automatic Merchandising Association, which represents manufacturers and suppliers of vending machines, estimated that it would cost the industry $56 million to prepare for compliance with the disclosure requirement. In later years, vendors would need to update the information as they offered new products ranging from sticky buns to tortilla chips.

Under the bill, chain restaurants with more than 20 locations would have to provide a calorie count for each standard menu item. The data would have to be displayed on the menu “in a clear and conspicuous manner.” Salad bars and cafeterias could satisfy the requirement by placing little signs next to items. The requirements would apply to restaurants as diverse as McDonald’s, Burger King, Ruth’s Chris Steak House and the Capital Grille.

Chain restaurants would also have to make available, on request, written information about fat, cholesterol, sodium and carbohydrates in menu items.

Representative Rosa DeLauro, Democrat of Connecticut, who championed the requirements, said they would promote good health, help prevent chronic disease and obesity and thus lower health costs.

“If someone walks into McDonald’s,” Ms. DeLauro said, “they should be able to see exactly how many calories are in a Big Mac, just as they would if they were eating a frozen pizza from the supermarket.”

The National Restaurant Association supported the labeling requirements, saying uniform national standards would be better than a patchwork of local rules. But the association took no position on the overall bill. By contrast, in 1994, leaders of the trade group campaigned against President Bill Clinton’s plan for universal health insurance, saying it would crush small businesses.

The House bill this year would create many new programs. It would, for example, provide grants to states for “home visitation” programs in which nurses and social workers counsel pregnant women and new mothers in low-income families.

A social worker could coach adults on “parenting practices” and teach skills needed to “interact with their child to enhance age-appropriate development.”

In his budget, Mr. Obama proposed a similar program, saying it could reduce child abuse, help prepare children for school and save money for Medicaid.

Other provisions instruct federal officials to “give priority” to construction of Indian health clinics in Minnesota, Nevada and New Mexico; provide scholarships for training veterinarians, among others; and require health plans to pay a fee — perhaps $2 a year for each subscriber — to finance research comparing the effectiveness of different treatments.

Link: Original Article