WASHINGTON—Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), chairman and ranking member, respectively, of the Senate Health Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee (HELP), jointly introduced a bill recently to reduce health care costs.
But despite sponsorship by influential members of both parties, as well as the backing of the health care industry and special interest groups, the draft Lower Health Care Costs Act of 2019 faces a bleak future in Congress.
The reason is the ever-more bitter impeachment fight sparked by special counsel Robert Mueller’s report and Democratic charges that President Donald Trump obstructed Mueller’s investigation of allegations that Russia aided Trump’s 2016 election victory.
Mueller’s comment during his farewell statement on May 29 that “if we had confidence that the president did not commit a crime, we would have said so” poured gasoline on an already hungry fire.
Shortly after Mueller spoke, Trump wrote in a tweet that “nothing changes from the Mueller Report. There was insufficient evidence and therefore, in our country, a person is innocent. The case is closed! Thank you.”
But Democrats pointed to Mueller’s statement to justify their growing calls for Trump’s impeachment. Even Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who has resisted such demands, said after Mueller spoke that she wants investigations led by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) and House Select Committee on Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) to continue.
“Where they will lead us, we shall see,” Pelosi said during a speech in San Francisco, adding that “nothing is off the table.”
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) echoed Pelosi, saying the investigations should go on, with investigators “following wherever the facts may lead.”
Many of the 23 Democrats seeking their party’s 2020 presidential nomination also left no doubt where they stand in Mueller’s wake, with Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), for example, writing on Twitter that “Congress has a legal and moral obligation to begin impeachment proceedings immediately.”
Similarly, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) said: “We need to start impeachment proceedings. It’s our constitutional obligation,” while Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) declared that “Mueller’s statement makes clear what those who have read his report know: It is an impeachment referral, and it’s up to Congress to act. They should.”
Amid the steadily more bitter impeachment battle, the Alexander-Murray proposal shows individual Republicans and Democrats can still collaborate on significant legislation.
The proposal includes five titles, with each title bringing together multiple ideas for addressing many of the factors currently driving health care costs upward at a projected annual rate of 5.5 percent for the next decade.
Title I addresses surprise health care bills consumers don’t expect to get and may not be able to pay promptly or in full. A HELP fact sheet on the proposal claims one of every five patient visits to emergency rooms results in such bills.
The Alexander-Murray draft contains three possible approaches for dealing with such expenses, including requiring every service provider in a hospital that accepts a patient’s insurance to do the same, making insurers pay a median contracted rate, and, for bills in excess of $750, allowing either the patient or provider to invoke an independent arbitrator.
The other four titles similarly deal with lowering prescription drug prices, making prices of individual services and procedures more transparent, prodding preventative care and behavior, and encouraging easier access to an individual’s health care records.
Alexander and Murray expect to convene the committee in June or July to complete the draft and move it forward in the Senate. The Heritage Foundation’s health care policy expert Ed Haislmaier called the schedule “ambitious.”
Nevertheless, Haislmaier told The Epoch Times that “there are a number of things that do have the potential to be bipartisan, so, as partisan as this current political environment is and the current Congress is, it is not impossible to conceive of things being done on a bipartisan basis, even in health care.”
Another Washington think tanker, Kevin Kosar, vice president of the R Street Institute and a former senior congressional aide, shared Haislmaier’s cautious optimism.
“I think the health legislation has a chance if Trump supports it and there is broad buy-in from the Senate,” Kosar said. “The big question is: Will Pelosi see enough good policy in the legislation to put it on the calendar? Or will she see electoral advantage in letting the bill die?”
Other veteran Republican campaign and congressional hands, however, sketched a much bleaker picture.
Matt Mackowiak, a Texas-based Republican strategist and former Senate communications director for two Republican senators, pointed to Democratic intransigence as the chief obstacle to progress.
“I think it’s hard to see the White House and House Democrats agreeing on major bipartisan legislation while Democrats are aggressively investigating the president, his family, his business, and the West Wing staff,” Mackowiak told The Epoch Times on May 30.
“The president should be pressuring House Democrats every day to focus on infrastructure, reducing drug prices and trade deals, while Democrats focus on impeachment, which is a political loser,” he said.
Kevin Sheridan, a Washington-based Republican strategist, also emphasized the negative impact of Mueller’s May 29 statement and predicted that the result will be that “House Democrats and the political media will remain stuck on Russia, obstruction, and impeachment from now until 2020.”
“It will be up to the public to pressure Congress to get back to work on the few issues they agree on. Not impossible, but don’t hold your breath. Mueller’s press conference made those prospects worse, not better,” Sheridan said.
Further complicating things, according to Richard Manning, president of Americans for Limited Government, is the growing power of the far-left among Democrats in Congress, as exemplified by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.).
“On health care, the devil is in the details, and it is hard to imagine the House passing something that Ocasio-Cortez opposes,” Manning said. “And it is impossible to imagine getting 60 votes in the Senate for something the ‘Venezuelan wing’ of the Democratic Party supports.”