Bipartisan Ways and Means leaders unveil measure to stop surprise medical bills

Bipartisan Ways and Means leaders unveil measure to stop surprise medical bills
© Greg Nash

The bipartisan leaders of the House Ways and Means Committee on Friday released their legislation to protect patients from getting massive, surprise medical bills as congressional action on the subject intensifies.

The legislation is backed by the panel’s chairman, Rep. Richard NealRichard Edmund NealPressure mounts on Congress for quick action with next coronavirus bill Democrats urge administration to automatically issue coronavirus checks to more people One year in, Democrats frustrated by fight for Trump tax returns MORE (D-Mass.), and its top Republican, Rep. Kevin BradyKevin Patrick BradyOfficials sound alarm over virus relief check scams Mnuchin says Social Security recipients will automatically get coronavirus checks Pelosi not invited by Trump to White House coronavirus relief bill's signing MORE (Texas). It would protect patients from getting bills for thousands of dollars when they go to the emergency room and one of their doctors happens to be outside their insurance network. 

Surprise billing is seen as a rare area of possible bipartisan action this year and has support from President TrumpDonald John TrumpCDC updates website to remove dosage guidance on drug touted by Trump Trump says he'd like economy to reopen 'with a big bang' but acknowledges it may be limited Graham backs Trump, vows no money for WHO in next funding bill MORE.

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But the effort has been slowed by varying approaches and intense lobbying from doctor and hospital groups. 

The Ways and Means bill is a rival approach to the bipartisan bill passed out of committee last year by the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

The divide between those two committees will have to be overcome for any bill to move forward. 

Neal and Brady said in a statement Friday that their approach “differs” from others because “we create a more balanced negotiation process.”

“Our priority throughout the painstaking process of crafting our legislation has been to get the policy right for patients, and we firmly believe that we have done that,” Neal and Brady said. “We look forward to working with our Democratic and Republican colleagues in Congress, as well as the Administration, to advance this measure swiftly.”

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The Ways and Means Committee is planning to vote on the legislation next week. 

While all sides in the surprise billing fight agree the patient should be protected, the main dispute has been how much the insurer will pay the doctor once the patient is taken out of the middle. 

Doctors and hospitals have lobbied hard against the Energy and Commerce approach, which they fear would lead to damaging cuts to their payments. That approach sets the payment based on the median rate in that geographic area, with the option of going to arbitration for some high-cost bills. 

The Ways and Means approach has generally been seen as more favorable to doctors and hospitals, but industry groups have not yet responded to the details on Friday morning.

The Ways and Means bill gives the decision on how much the insurer should pay the doctor to an outside arbiter, although that arbiter will have to consider the median rate usually paid for that service in making its decision. 

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The House Education and Labor Committee is also planning to vote on legislation next week, and released a bill on Friday that closely reflects the Energy and Commerce and Senate Health Committee legislation, isolating Ways and Means. 

Shawn Gremminger, senior director of federal relations at the liberal health care advocacy group Families USA, said it is "disappointing" that Ways and Means is using an approach that will not lower health costs as much, but he said it is good the process is moving forward. 

The Energy and Commerce leaders, along with leaders of the Senate Health Committee, who also back their bill, released a conciliatory statement on Friday about the Ways and Means bill. 

"Protecting innocent patients has been our top goal throughout this effort, and we appreciate that the other two House committees share this priority," said Reps. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.) and Greg WaldenGregory (Greg) Paul WaldenOvernight Energy: Trump rolls back Obama-era fuel efficiency standards | Controversial Keystone XL construction to proceed | Pressure mounts to close national parks amid pandemic Infrastructure bill gains new steam as coronavirus worsens Critics blast Trump mileage rollback, citing environment and health concerns MORE (R-Ore.) and Sens. Lamar Alexnader (R-Tenn.) and Patty MurrayPatricia (Patty) Lynn MurraySenate Democrats propose ,000 hazard-pay plan for essential workers Trump administration issues guidance scaling back paid leave requirement for small business employees Senate coronavirus stimulus talks spill into Saturday MORE (D-Wash.). "We look forward to working together to deliver a bill to the president’s desk that protects patients and lowers health care costs for American consumers."

Updated at 11:14 a.m.