Key senators release bipartisan package to lower health care costs

Key senators release bipartisan package to lower health care costs
© Greg Nash

A pair of key senators on Wednesday unveiled a revised version of their bipartisan package aimed at lowering health care costs, ahead of a committee markup expected next week.

Sens. Lamar AlexanderAndrew (Lamar) Lamar AlexanderLawmakers raise alarms over Trump coronavirus response Bill Barr is trying his best to be Trump's Roy Cohn The Trump administration's harmful and immoral attack on children MORE (R-Tenn.) and Patty MurrayPatricia (Patty) Lynn MurrayLawmakers raise alarms over Trump coronavirus response Public health experts raise alarm as coronavirus spreads Overnight Health Care: Senate panel to hold hearing on US coronavirus response | Dems demand Trump withdraw religious provider rule | Trump Medicaid proposal sparks bipartisan backlash MORE (D-Wash.) released the package, which takes steps to protect patients from receiving massive “surprise” medical bills when they get care from an out-of-network doctor. It also cracks down on anti-competitive clauses in hospital contracts with insurers that can drive up costs, and encourages the introduction of cheaper generic drugs.  

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Alexander and Murray are known as two of the best bipartisan dealmakers in the Senate. Their previous signature health care effort in 2017 and 2018 to shore up ObamaCare eventually failed amid the bitter partisan divide over the health law.

Alexander says the new effort is intended to focus on other areas in health care that are less partisan.

This is a different discussion [than ObamaCare],” the senator said Tuesday. “This is the way the United States Senate is supposed to work."

One of the most significant and contentious decisions in the new bill is on the mechanism for protecting patients from surprise medical bills.

While both parties and a range of health care industry groups agreed that patients should be protected, insurers sparred with hospitals and doctors over the details of how to determine what the insurer should pay the medical provider. Both sides jockeyed to avoid taking a big financial hit.

Alexander and Murray have landed on an approach that essentially sets a payment rate for the insurer to pay the doctor or hospital, an approach that was favored by insurers but opposed by hospitals, who worried the move is moving too far towards government setting of payment rates.

The approach is similar to one proposed by bipartisan House committee leaders, Reps. Frank Pallone Jr.Frank Joseph PalloneOvernight Health Care — Presented by That's Medicaid — Deal on surprise medical bills faces obstacles | House GOP unveils rival drug pricing measure ahead of Pelosi vote | Justices to hear case over billions in ObamaCare payments Obstacles remain for deal on surprise medical bills This week: House impeachment inquiry hits crucial stretch MORE (D-N.J.) and Greg WaldenGregory (Greg) Paul WaldenHillicon Valley — Presented by Facebook — Federal court rules tech giants can censor content | Trump upends surveillance fight | Senate passes bill barring federal funds for Huawei equipment Senate unanimously approves bill to ban purchase of Huawei equipment with federal funds Lawmakers grill Ticketmaster, StubHub execs over online ticketing MORE (R-Ore.), a sign that this option could move forward.

“The single issue I hear most about from Tennesseans is, ‘What are you going to do about the health care costs I pay for out of my own pocket?’ Well, we've got an answer,” Alexander said in a statement.

The bipartisan work comes as Democrats also attack Republicans for undermining the Affordable Care Act.

Murray sought to strike a balance by emphasizing that more work needed to be done related to ObamaCare.  

“This must be a first step, not a last one,” she said in a statement. “I hope Republicans will build on this momentum by joining us at the table on bigger health care issues too—like repairing the damage from President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump endorses former White House physician Ronny Jackson for Congress Newly released emails reveal officials' panic over loss of credibility after Trump's Dorian claims Lindsey Graham thanks Trump, bemoans 'never-ending bull----' at South Carolina rally  MORE’s health care sabotage and protecting people with pre-existing conditions.”