Chances for drug pricing, surprise billing action fade until November

Chances for drug pricing, surprise billing action fade until November
© Bonnie Cash

The chances of Congress passing legislation to lower drug prices and protect patients from surprise medical bills are fading, at least until after the November election. 

As the coronavirus crisis overshadows all other activity on Capitol Hill, the massive response package being negotiated on Tuesday is expected to push off a key deadline for drug pricing and surprise billing legislation. 

The coronavirus response package is going to renew a range of expiring health care programs, such as community health center funding, until Nov. 30, sources say. 

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Those programs were previously scheduled to expire on May 22, and lawmakers in both parties had been hoping to attach drug pricing and surprise billing legislation when those programs were renewed in May. 

But without the May deadline to force action, it becomes much harder for lawmakers to come together to pass drug pricing or surprise billing legislation. 

The Nov. 30 deadline could still force action then, but it is hard to predict the political dynamic after the election. 

Lowering drug prices and protecting patients from getting massive surprise medical bills when they go to the emergency room have been seen for months as rare areas of possible bipartisan cooperation. 

But there were always obstacles, including House Democrats pushing for a far more sweeping drug pricing bill than Republicans wanted and divisions among Republicans over how far to go. 

A range of divisions within the parties and between rival committees also slowed surprise billing legislation. Powerful industries, from drug companies to hospitals and doctors, were also opposed to various actions.

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But the coronavirus crisis and the delay of the key deadline are now dimming prospects further. 

Backers of action held out hope, including that a future coronavirus response this spring could also serve as a vehicle or that lawmakers could agree to pass legislation without any deadline or vehicle to attach it to if political pressure mounts.  

“Congress can pass a bill anytime it wants,” said Michael Zona, a spokesman for Sen. Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleySenators offer bill to prevent relief payments from being seized by private debt collectors Senators weigh traveling amid coronavirus ahead of Memorial Day Why is our government holding us liable for COVID-19? MORE (R-Iowa), a leading proponent of drug pricing legislation. “Having available vehicles makes it easier but doesn’t prevent anything from happening.” 

“The coronavirus crisis shows why now more than ever seniors need to be able to afford the prescription drugs they rely on to survive,” he added. “We’re confident that going forward prescription drug pricing and surprise billing legislation will be priorities for President TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden slams Trump in new ad: 'The death toll is still rising.' 'The president is playing golf' Brazil surpasses Russia with second-highest coronavirus case count in the world Trump slams Sessions: 'You had no courage & ruined many lives' MORE and Congress.”

Added a House GOP aide, “You shouldn’t need a vehicle to do good policy and solve a real problem for Americans. But some people don’t want to fix it, and their true colors are shining bright.”