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Poll finds support for independent arbiters resolving 'surprise' medical bills

A new poll commissioned by a conservative group finds that a strong majority of voters support an independent arbiter resolving disputes over so-called "surprise" medical bills patients sometimes receive from hospitals and providers when their services aren't covered by insurance.

The poll, which was sponsored by the Taxpayers Protection Alliance, found that 75 percent of voters believe doctors, rather than health insurers, should determine the amount physicians charge for their work.

In cases of payment disputes, 74 percent support a third-party resolution that does not involve the federal government "benchmarking" prices for certain services.

Insurers and providers agree patients shouldn't receive massive bills they're not expecting, but the two sides are at war over who will take the hit if Congress legislates changes to their billing practices.

The debate is expected to spill over into the next Congress and could have electoral consequences for some candidates.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee and the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) committees reached a bipartisan agreement this year to ban surprise medical bills through "benchmarking," which sets costs at the average price for a service.

Conservative groups, including the Taxpayers Protection Alliance, have spent millions in opposition to the legislation, describing it as "rate setting" or federally-mandated "price controls" that give the government too much power over the health sector.

Critics of the legislation have warned that it would lead to a single-payer system such as Medicare for all.

Insurers largely support the "benchmarking" deal, which was struck by House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.) and ranking member Greg Walden (R-Ore.), and Senate HELP Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.).

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal (D-Mass.) and ranking GOP member Kevin Brady (Texas) have a competing plan that would end surprise billing by allowing an outside party to determine how much the insurer will pay the doctor if an agreement cannot be reached in private.

Neal recently won a close primary contest against a progressive candidate who ran ads against him for opposing the "benchmarking" bill.

The new poll, conducted by Jarrett Lewis and Robert Blizzard of Public Opinion Strategies, found that 58 percent are less likely to support the benchmarking plan when they're told it will lead to a single payer system, including 83 percent of Republicans.

The conservative groups have been attacking the Walden-Pallone-Alexander-Murray bill as a move toward Medicare for all.

The poll found near-universal support for doctors, nurses and hospitals, while only about half of voters have a favorable view of health insurers.

Since the coronavirus pandemic, about 78 percent say their trust in doctors has increased, while only 32 percent say they have more trust in health insurers to look out for their best interests.

Eighty-five percent say they think health insurers put profits over their medical concerns.

"Rate setting was unpopular before COVID-19 but it has now become politically unviable," said TPA President David Williams. "Doctors and nurses are risking their lives to care for sick patients and voters have made it clear that lawmakers should stand with healthcare heroes, not insurance companies. Legislation that resembles rate setting in any capacity will be met with strong opposition. By a clear margin, voters also make it clear they do not want a rate setting law that opens the door for Medicare for All. Congress must move forward with a solution that protects patients and doctors instead of delivering a win to big insurance companies."

The Public Opinion Strategies poll of 800 registered voters in Colorado, Georgia, Kansas, Kentucky and Michigan was conducted between Sept. 4 and Sept. 10 and has a 3.46 percentage point margin of error.

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