• House passes health care reform, national menu labeling

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The U.S. House of Representatives on Sunday passed its sweeping health care reform bill, despite concerns expressed by the National Restaurant Association and others.
 
Under the bill, as of 2014, most individuals will be required to purchase insurance coverage. Employers with 50 or more full-time equivalent employees that do not offer coverage to their employees will pay $2,000 annually. Employers who offer coverage but whose employees take advantage of tax credits will pay $3,000 for each worker receiving a tax credit. The bill does include a 90-day waiting period for new hires.
 
The bill also includes an immediate tax credit to qualified small businesses with fewer than 25 employees when they contribute to purchase health insurance for employees. Small businesses would be eligible to choose from insurance plans via state-run purchasing exchanges to help make the plans more affordable, starting in 2014.
 
The NRA had lobbied for provisions to the bill that would protect the industry and was successful in achieving several improvements, including the waiting period. The association also called for a change to the definition of full-time employee to one that more suited the nature of the industry as well as exemptions for part-time and seasonal workers. When changes to the final version of the bill were announced last week, the NRA board's executive committee voted unanimously to publicly oppose the legislation.
 
Dawn Sweeney, NRA president and CEO, said in a statement Sunday that the association is disappointed the bill did not do more to meet the needs of the industry.
"We are committed to reducing costs in the health care system and expanding health care coverage for the industry's workforce," she said. "However, we are extremely concerned that the health care bill that passed today will impose tremendous burdens on America's restaurants and hurt our industry's ability to create and sustain jobs.
 
"We will continue to look for every opportunity and explore every avenue to create jobs, strengthen the economy and protect the restaurant industry as this legislation moves forward to the Senate, as well as in the regulatory process. We will ask the Senate to address the protections for small businesses when they take up the reconciliation provisions. In particular, we call on them to address the provisions regarding part-time workers, which will directly impact the creation of jobs during this critical time for our country."
National menu labeling
 
The Center for Science in the Public Interest said in a statement that the bill's passage is a "huge victory for consumers" for its inclusion of a national menu labeling provision. The provision will require calorie labeling on chain restaurant menus, menu boards, and drive-thru displays, as well as on vending machines. The legislation applies to chains with 20 or more outlets, and requires them to provide additional nutrition information on request.  
 
Similar measures are already in effect or are awaiting implementation in California, Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Oregon, New York City, Philadelphia, and a dozen other localities. The federal standard will preempt state or local laws regarding chains with 20 or more locations.
 
CSPI began pressing for nutrition labeling at chain restaurants in 2003. New York City became the first jurisdiction to enact menu labeling, via regulations issued by the city's Board of Health, in 2006. California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed that state's menu labeling law in 2008. The NRA dropped its longstanding objection to menu labeling last year and supported the language passed by Congress Sunday.
 
"The passage of this provision is a win for consumers and restaurateurs," said Dawn Sweeney, National Restaurant Association president and CEO. "We know the importance of providing consumers with the information they want and need, no matter in which part of the country they are dining. This legislation will replace a growing patchwork of varying state and local regulations with one consistent national standard that helps consumers make choices that are best for themselves and their families."
 
The menu labeling bill exempts small businesses and does not apply to daily or temporary specials and customized orders. It requires the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to propose specific regulations not later than one year from now. Those regulations will be finalized through a formal rulemaking process, and the FDA must make quarterly reports on its progress to Congress.
 
"The historic legislation that President Barack Obama will sign will do so much to give more Americans access to health care, but it also does much to help prevent disease in the first place," said CSPI nutrition policy director Margo G. Wootan. "Menu labeling at restaurants will help make First Lady Michelle Obama's mission to reduce childhood obesity just a little bit easier."

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