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Pelosi huddles with chairmen on surprise billing but deal elusive

Pelosi huddles with chairmen on surprise billing but deal elusive
© Bonnie Cash

Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiGohmert says Jan. 6 mob attack on Capitol not an 'armed insurrection' Meghan McCain: Greene 'behaving like an animal' GOP Rep. Turner to lead House push to address military sexual assault MORE (D-Calif.) met with three Democratic committee chairmen on Monday in an effort to bridge differences between competing plans to protect patients from surprise medical bills, but there was no breakthrough, according to people familiar with the meeting.  

The meeting comes as backers of a solution are making a last-ditch push to try to include the protections in the upcoming coronavirus response package. But amid a complex array of divisions across the parties and lobbying by powerful industries, the proposal faces very tough odds of making it into the package, despite both sides of the aisle and the White House saying they support the idea in principle. 

Pelosi met in her office with Energy and Commerce Chairman Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.), Education and Labor Chairman Bobby ScottRobert (Bobby) Cortez ScottHouse passes bill mandating accommodations for pregnant workers Biden's pre-K plan is a bipartisan opportunity to serve the nation's children Democrats target Trump methane rule with Congressional Review Act MORE (D-Va.) and Ways and Means Chairman Richard NealRichard Edmund NealGAO report finds maternal mortality rates higher in rural, underserved areas On The Money: Weekly jobless claims fall to 498K, hitting new post-lockdown low | House to advance appropriations bills in June, July Rural Democrats urge protections from tax increases for family farms MORE (D-Mass.). 

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The idea is to protect patients from getting stuck with surprise medical bills for thousands of dollars when they get care from a doctor who happens to be outside their insurance network. 

The proposal has been stalled since last year, though, given intense lobbying from various parts of the health care industry over the details of how much insurers would pay doctors once the patient is protected. 

Pallone and Scott are both backing an approach that also has the support of the top Republicans on their committees and the bipartisan leaders of the Senate Health Committee. That bill is also backed by consumer groups and unions who say it would do more to drive down health care costs and lower premiums for consumers. 

Neal is pushing a rival approach, along with Rep. Kevin BradyKevin Patrick BradyGAO report finds maternal mortality rates higher in rural, underserved areas Republicans attack Biden agenda after disappointing jobs report Bad jobs report amplifies GOP cries to end 0 benefits boost MORE (R-Texas), the top Republican on his committee, warning that Pallone and Scott's approach would lead to damaging cuts to payments to hospitals and doctors. 

Backers of the first approach have grown frustrated with Neal for what they view as an unwillingness to budge and a desire simply to derail the process. 

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Asked about the meeting, Neal spokeswoman Erin Hatch warned that the Pallone and Scott proposal would hurt hospitals as they are dealing with coronavirus and pointed to statements of support from hospital groups for Neal's bill. 

"I know you’re well-aware of the horrible impact COVID-19 has had on doctors and community hospitals," Hatch wrote in an email. "A proposal that favors big insurance companies and their bottom lines over the survival of critical health care providers isn’t good for patients, especially right now.”

She added, though, that “Chairman Neal left the conversation optimistic — everyone in the meeting was committed to addressing the issue in the near future, and progress was made during the discussion.”

Neal’s stance on surprise billing has become an issue in his primary race against a progressive challenger, Alex Morse, as well. The progressive group Fight Corporate Monopolies began running an ad earlier this month accusing Neal of blocking progress on surprise billing to protect private equity companies like Blackstone, which is a contributor to him. Private equity firms own doctor staffing companies that would take a financial hit from surprise billing legislation. 

More broadly, though, it is unclear if any of the top four congressional leaders, in both parties, will push for inclusion of surprise billing legislation in the upcoming package, leaving its future looking bleak. 

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Pelosi still faces a divide among her chairmen and has so far not been willing to overrule either side to reach a deal. And Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellFormer OMB pick Neera Tanden to serve as senior adviser to Biden Lawmakers reach agreement on bipartisan Jan. 6 commission The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Masks off: CDC greenlights return to normal for vaccinated Americans MORE (R-Ky.) has not expressed any interest in dealing with the issue. 

The Trump administration did release a report from the Department of Health and Human Services on Wednesday calling for congressional action on the issue, without endorsing a specific approach. 

“Now it’s time for Congress to do what we all agree is necessary: combat surprise billing with an approach that puts patients in control and benefits all Americans,” HHS Secretary Alex Azar said in a statement on Wednesday. 

Pallone and Scott also released a statement with their panels’ two top Republicans, Reps. Greg WaldenGregory (Greg) Paul WaldenLobbying world Give Republicans the climate credit they deserve Fox hires former GOP lawmaker Greg Walden as political consultant MORE (R-Ore.) and Virginia FoxxVirginia Ann FoxxHouse passes bill mandating accommodations for pregnant workers GOP votes to replace Cheney with Stefanik after backing from Trump Stefanik shake-up jump-starts early jockeying for committee posts MORE (R-Va.) and Senate Health Committee leaders Lamar AlexanderLamar AlexanderThe Republicans' deep dive into nativism Senate GOP faces retirement brain drain The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by the National Shooting Sports Foundation - CDC news on gatherings a step toward normality MORE (R-Tenn.) and Patty MurrayPatricia (Patty) Lynn MurrayBiden's pre-K plan is a bipartisan opportunity to serve the nation's children Schumer 'exploring' passing immigration unilaterally if talks unravel Senate Democrats push Biden over raising refugee cap MORE (D-Wash.) calling for action on their approach on Wednesday. 

“The American people can’t afford to wait any longer,” the statement said.