(CNSNews.com) – The health care reform bill approved by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee (HELP) would provide federal grants to state and local governments and a “national network of community-based organizations” to "promote healthy living and reduce disparities" and to monitor people's weight, eating, exercise habits and other individual behaviors that affect health at the community level.
The language instituting the program, entitled "Community Transformation Grants," is on pages 382-387 of the bill as posted on the committee's Web site.
The bill states that only three types of entities will be eligible to receive grants under the program: "a--(A) State government agency; (B) local government agency; or (C) national network of community-based organizations."
Neither the White House nor the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pension (HELP) Committee responded to inquiries from CNSNews.com about exactly what organzations would be eligible for the grants as a "national network of community-based organzations" and exactly how these community-based organizations would operate.
The HELP Committee is the only Senate committee to have voted so far on a health care reform bill. The minority office of the HELP Committee, under Ranking Member Mike Enzi (R-Wy.), referred questions to the office of the committee chairman, Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.). Kennedy’s office did not respond to CNSNews.com inquires about the provision.
The language of the bill says that the secretary of health and human services, acting through the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, can award the grants “for the implementation, evaluation, and dissemination of proven evidence-based community preventive health activities in order to reduce chronic disease rates, address health disparities, and develop a stronger evidence-base of effective prevention programming.”
The community-based organizations that get the federal grants must submit a plan to HHS that “includes the policy, environmental, programmatic, and infrastructure changes needed to promote healthy living and reduce disparities.”
These plans can include “activities” to create “healthier school environments, including increasing healthy food options, physical activity opportunities, promotion of healthy lifestyle and prevention curricula, and activities to prevent chronic diseases.”
The language of the bill says, "Activities within the plan shall focus on (but not be limited to) ... (iv) assessing and implementing worksite wellness programming and incentives; (v) working to highlight healthy options at restaurants and other food venues; (vi) prioritizing strategies to reduce racial and ethnic disparities, including social determinants of health..."
In a section entitled, “Community-Based Prevention Health Activities," the bill calls on grant recipients to measure weight loss, physical activity, smoking and other activities of people in the neighborhood.
"In carrying out subparagraph (A), the eligible entity shall, with respect to residents in the community, measure--
"(i) decreases in weight;
"(ii) increases in proper nutrition;
"(iii) increases in physical activity;
"(iv) decreases in tobacco use prevalence;
"(v) other factors using community-specific data from the Behavioral Risk Surveillance Survey; and
"(vi) other factors as determined by the Secretary [at HHS].”
The proposed law further says that the CDC director “shall provide appropriate feedback and technical assistance to grantees to establish community makeover plans.”
The proposed law does not say, however, exactly how or with what authority a grant recipient would go around measuring weight loss of community residents, or their use of “proper nutrition” or whether they had increased their physical activity, among other mandates in the bill.
Further, the Kennedy health care bill does not say which “national network of community-based organizations” is eligible to participate. Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) said that it is possible that the controversial group ACORN could qualify for the available grants.
“I don’t believe so, but they could be,” Dodd told CNSNews.com, in an earlier interview. “I just don’t want to say categorically it’s the case.”
“I’m not saying yes or no, I just don’t know. I don’t think it’s a blanket thing that anyone applies necessarily,” he said. “There would have to be criteria by which an organization qualifies to receive those grants.”
ACORN, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, is a national network of community-based organizations. It has been scrutinized in recent years over allegations of voter registration fraud. In Nevada, criminal charges were filed against the group in May that said ACORN illegally paid for the registration of voters before the 2008 election. ACORN has denied the allegations.
ACORN has also been criticized because of its partnership agreement with the U.S. Census Bureau to help in the 2010 Census count.
Devon Herrick, a senior fellow at the conservative National Center for Policy Analysis (NCPA), in an e-mail to CNSNews.com, speculated that grants for “Creating Healthier Communities” could be misused by organizations that do not promote healthy living.
“I'm only speculating, because the bill does not make it clear,” Herrick said. “You will have to ask the Senate HELP Committee staff for a definitive answer. [But] my concern is the grants would be misused to reward political organizations whose mission has never been to promote healthier lifestyles.”
Herrick said he doubts that efforts by community-based organizations will result in healthier neighborhoods, adding that he expects entities such as schools and non-profits to use the grants if the Senate provision is included in the final bill.
“I'm not convinced community-based initiatives will result in healthier communities,” he said.
“But if provisions for healthy community grants ultimately pass, I would like to think the funds would be used by schools [to create new after-school programs] and by non-profits, such as YMCA, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, etcetera,” Herrick said, “and for actual programs that encourage physical activity and teach healthy living.”
The NCPA’s senior fellow’s comments were in response to CNSNews.com’s inquiry to provide an interpretation of the “community transformation grants provision” and whether organizations like ACORN would benefit. He was also asked to provide examples of which organizations would qualify.
“My hope is that the funds would go to organizations who have been promoting healthy lifestyles all along,” Herrick told CNSNews.com.
Michael W. Chapman contributed to this report.