Senate Health Committee advances bipartisan package to lower health costs

Senate Health Committee advances bipartisan package to lower health costs
© Greg Nash

The Senate Health Committee on Wednesday voted to advance a bipartisan package aimed at lowering health care costs to the full Senate.

The measure from Sens. Lamar AlexanderAndrew (Lamar) Lamar AlexanderBill Barr is trying his best to be Trump's Roy Cohn The Trump administration's harmful and immoral attack on children Democrats worried about Trump's growing strength MORE (R-Tenn.) and Patty MurrayPatricia (Patty) Lynn MurrayOvernight Health Care: Senate panel to hold hearing on US coronavirus response | Dems demand Trump withdraw religious provider rule | Trump Medicaid proposal sparks bipartisan backlash Democratic senators urge Trump administration to request emergency funding for coronavirus response Democrats demand Trump administration withdraw religious provider rule MORE (D-Wash.), who are known as two of the best bipartisan dealmakers in the Senate, marks a rare bipartisan area of cooperation on the highly divisive issue of health care. 

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The package passed the committee on a vote of 20-3. Sens. Bernie SandersBernie SandersSanders says idea he can't work with Republicans is 'total nonsense' Sanders defends Castro comments in wake of backlash from some Democrats Sanders releases list of how to pay for his proposals MORE (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenCandidates face pressure to exit presidential race Buttigieg proposes undoing SALT deduction cap Bloomberg called Warren 'scary,' knocked Obama's first term in leaked audio MORE (D-Mass.), both strong progressives who are running for president, voted "no" in absentia. Sanders's office said he opposed the bill because it lacked enough funding for community health centers. Warren said that while the bill had "important provisions" it failed to address GOP "sabotage" of ObamaCare or soaring drug costs.  

Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulCongress set for clash over surveillance reforms Senate braces for fight over impeachment whistleblower testimony Pelosi names first-ever House whistleblower ombudsman director MORE (R-Ky.), a strong conservative, also voted "no." 

Otherwise, the committee was remarkably united. Alexander purposely steered the bill to avoid the polarizing issue of ObamaCare and to focus on other areas. 

The measure protects patients from getting massive “surprise” medical bills when they get care from out-of-network doctors and restricts anti-competitive provisions in insurance contracts with hospitals that can drive up costs.

The package also includes a bill from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellSchumer on Trump intel shakeup: 'Disgrace,' 'closer to a banana republic' Bottom Line The Hill's 12:30 Report: Sanders's momentum puts Democrats on edge MORE (R-Ky.) and Sen. Tim KaineTimothy (Tim) Michael KaineThe Hill's Morning Report — AG Barr, GOP senators try to rein Trump in Overnight Defense: Senate votes to rein in Trump war powers on Iran | Pentagon shifting .8B to border wall | US, Taliban negotiate seven-day 'reduction in violence' Democratic senators ask FDA to ban device used to shock disabled students MORE (D-Va.) to raise the age to buy tobacco from 18 to 21. The inclusion of that provision, which drew praise from McConnell, could improve the package’s chances of coming up for a vote. 

Alexander said Wednesday that he hopes McConnell will bring the package up for a full Senate vote before the end of July.

The Finance and Judiciary committees are also working on health care packages aimed at lowering drug costs. Alexander said those could be added if they are ready but that he does not want to wait for a full Senate vote for his package past the end of July if other panels' legislation is not ready. 

Sen. Chris MurphyChristopher (Chris) Scott MurphyThe Hill's Morning Report - Sanders steamrolls to South Carolina primary, Super Tuesday Sunday shows - 2020 spotlight shifts to South Carolina Murphy: No concerns with Sanders on gun policy MORE (D-Conn.) pushed to call attention to the Republican-backed lawsuit currently making its way through the courts that aims to overturn the entire Affordable Care Act. He offered an amendment to require a report on the lawsuit’s effects, but Republicans voted it down. 

“Those are issues for another time and another bill and another day,” Alexander said of the debate over ObamaCare. 

Sens. Tammy BaldwinTammy Suzanne BaldwinOvernight Health Care: Appeals court strikes down Medicaid work requirements | Pelosi's staff huddles with aides on surprise billing | Senate Dems pressure Trump to drop ObamaCare lawsuit Senate Democrats pressure Trump to drop ObamaCare lawsuit Democratic senators press Amazon over injury rates MORE (D-Wis.) and Mike BraunMichael BraunOvernight Health Care: Ernst endorses bipartisan bill to lower drug prices | US partnering with drugmakers on coronavirus vaccine | UN chief says virus poses 'enormous' risks Senators, bruised by impeachment, hunt for deals Plan to probe Bidens sparks GOP divisions MORE (R-Ind.) also won a vote to include their provision requiring drug companies to submit justifications for large price increases. Several Republicans voted for the amendment despite the opposition of Alexander, who said he wanted to make changes. 

Updated at 3:16 p.m.