House Dems stop short of committing to vote on health pricing bill this year

House Democrats vowed Thursday to fight for a bill requiring healthcare providers to make their prices clearer for the public, but stopped short of promising that the provision would hit the floor this year.

The comments came after the Energy and Commerce health subcommittee held a hearing on three price transparency bills – one broad Democratic measure and two more limited alternatives that have bipartisan and industry support.

"There’s certainly a possibility that we could move forward with legislation," Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), the health panel’s chairman, said after the hearing.  "We’re not clear on that yet."

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The broader Democratic measure is sponsored by Rep. Steve Kagen (D-Wis.), an allergy doctor who is not on the Energy and Commerce panel. That bill  has 54 Democratic co-sponsors, but has attracted industry criticism for being overly broad and requiring information on price negotiations between providers and insurers that health plans say could lead to higher prices.

Two Republican-backed measures, sponsored by Rep. Michael Burgess (R-Texas) and Energy and Commerce ranking member Joe Barton (R-Texas), are also on the table, each of which has two Democratic co-sponsors. The Burgess bill would require transparency in hospital charges, while the Barton bill covers ambulatory surgical centers where patients aren’t hospitalized after their operation.

The Burgess bill mirrors an amendment that passed the House during the health reform debate, but didn’t make it into the Senate bill.

"I’m glad Congressman Kagen introduced [his bill] because it makes ours look much more responsible," said Rep. Gene Green (D-Texas), who has co-sponsored both Republican alternatives.

In his opening remarks, Pallone voiced a note of caution.

"The concern I guess is about the unintended consequences of too much transparency," Pallone said, pointing to a Congressional Budget Office report that suggests that increasing transparency in highly concentrated markets could lead to higher prices because providers can see what the others are charging.

"As we talk about improving price transparency," Pallone said, "I think it makes sense to be cognizant of these concerns."

Green told reporters that efforts are underway to merge the two bipartisan alternatives, as well as to require quality reports to accompany the price provision.

“I think we can merge those two,” Green said. “We’re going to work to see what we can do to get everybody on board.”

None of the three bills has a Senate companion.

Asked if the search was on for a Senate champion, Green said getting to a markup in the House was the first step. He added it would make sense for the Senate health committee to address the issue.

A senior House aide tells The Hill that Senate leadership is “looking for a way to move it in the Senate.” Senate leadership officials declined to comment.