Bipartisan Anti-Surprise Medical Billing Measure Advances in Senate

June 27, 2019 Updated: June 27, 2019

WASHINGTON—An overwhelming bipartisan vote by the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) moved a bill designed to end unexpected medical bills to consumers to the full Senate, and debate on final passage could come as early as next month.

The 20–3 vote on the “Lower Health Care Costs Act of 2019” on June 26 included two votes against it—by Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.)—that were cast by proxy.

Warren was participating in the first Democratic presidential candidate debate in Miami on the evening of June 26, while Sanders will take the stage June 27 for the second night of the debate. There are 25 individuals seeking the party’s 2020 presidential nomination to oppose President Donald Trump.

The legislation approved by the HELP panel was originally introduced by committee Chairman Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), the ranking minority member; it now incorporates 54 suggestions from 65 senators, including 36 Democrats and 29 Republicans.

“The Lower Health Care Costs Act will reduce what Americans pay out of their pockets for health care in three major ways,” Alexander said in a statement released shortly after the vote.

“First, it ends surprise billing. Second, it creates more transparency— there are 12 bipartisan provisions that will: eliminate gag clauses and anti-competitive terms in insurance contracts; designate a non-profit entity to unlock insurance claims for employers; ban Pharmacy Benefit Managers (PBMs) from charging more for a drug than the PBM paid for the drug, and require that patients receive more information on the cost and quality of their health care. You can’t lower your health care costs until you know what your health care actually costs.

“And third, it increases prescription drug competition—there are 14 bipartisan provisions to help more low-cost generic and bio-similar drugs reach patients.”

Alexander said he hopes to get the bill to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) in time “for the full Senate to consider next month.”

McConnell told Roll Call the measure will receive top priority. “We haven’t made a decision on exact timing yet, but it’s for early consideration,” McConnell said.

Even with preferential treatment by Republican leaders in the Senate and the thoroughly bipartisan process that produced the bill, it still faces a rough road in the House of Representatives.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) announced on June 25 that former special counsel Robert Mueller will appear before the panel July 17.

Mueller agreed to testify, despite having previously said on May 29 that he didn’t plan to make any further public statements about his report that found no American colluded with Russian interests to influence the outcome of the 2016 presidential election.

Democrats, including former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who was heavily favored to defeat Trump, have argued since the 2016 election that members of the president’s campaign staff colluded with individuals closely tied to the Russian government and its intelligence operations.

Republicans hoped Mueller’s conclusion after a 22-month investigation that cost more than $30 million would end the Democratic accusations, but in the weeks since, talk of impeachment has continued and even intensified in some quarters.

Mueller may have been foreshadowing his upcoming testimony in May when he said, “If we had confidence that the president did not commit a crime, we would have said so.”

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has allowed Nadler to pursue the allegations with little restraint. Mueller agreed to testify after Nadler issued a subpoena.

An impeachment move by House Democrats this year would likely stall legislative progress across the board.

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