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Analysis

Senate Committee Unveils Bipartisan Bill to Reduce Healthcare Costs

By John Commins  
   May 24, 2019

Observers say the support for the bill from senior leaders in both parties also means that its prospects are solid for clearing an otherwise dysfunctional Senate in some form.

The Senate Health Committee on Thursday unveiled a sweeping bipartisan proposal that aims to address surprise medical bills, improve transparency, and reduce the cost of prescription drugs and the overall cost of healthcare delivery.

"Republicans and Democrats in the United States Senate have announced this proposal of nearly three dozen specific bipartisan provisions that will reduce the cost of what Americans pay for healthcare," Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) said in prepared remarks.

"These are common sense steps we can take, and every single one of them has the objective of reducing the healthcare costs that you pay for out of your own pocket," Alexander said, adding that his committee hopes to have the legislation on the Senate floor by July.

Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), a co-sponsor of the Lower Health Care Costs Act of 2019, said the draft legislation addresses "important issues like surprise medical billing, drug prices, maternal mortality, and vaccine hesitancy," and that the rare bipartisan effort demonstrates that "we can make progress when both sides are at the table ready to put patients and families first."

The fact that an otherwise gridlocked, deeply partisan Senate could work together on sweeping legislation such as this demonstrates that both parties are hearing the frustrations from their constituents.

"There's one issue I hear a lot about from Tennesseans, and it is, 'What are you going to do about the health care costs I pay for out of my own pocket?'" Alexander said. "Well, we've got an answer."

The bill has five component parts addressing: Surprise medical bills; lowering the cost of prescription drugs; improving transparency; improving access to personal health records; and lowering the overall cost of healthcare delivery.

Observers say the support for the bill from senior leaders in both parties also means that its prospects are solid for clearing Senate in some form.

"Folks should take this package seriously," Dean Rosen a former Republican senior health adviser and a partner at Mehlman Castagnetti Rosen & Thomas, told NPR.

"When you have a chairman and a ranking member that have worked together on a bipartisan package in the committee of jurisdiction, it always gives more weight to the product," he said.

Stakeholders Respond

Tom Nickels, executive vice president of the American Hospital Association, mostly praised the Act but raised concerns "about several of the proposals that would allow the government to intrude into private commercial contracts between providers and insurers."

"Specifically, banning so-called 'all or nothing' clauses could lead to even more narrow networks with fewer provider choices for patients, while adversely affecting access to care at rural and community hospitals," Nickels said in prepared remarks.

On surprise medical bills, Nickels said the AHA's "preferred solution is simple: patients should not be balance billed for emergency services, or for services obtained in any in-network facility."

"They should therefore have certainty regarding their cost-sharing obligations based on an in-network amount," he said. "We strongly oppose approaches that would impose arbitrary rates on providers, along with untested proposals such as bundling payments, which would be unworkable and would do nothing to solve the issue of surprise billing.

Matt Eyles, president and CEO of America's Health Insurance Plans, said the payer lobby largely agrees with the proposals put forward in the Act and would work with the committee in the coming weeks.

While drafting the bill, Alexander said the committee solicited comments from the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute, the left-leaning Brookings Institution, Republican and Democratic governors and state insurance commissioners, doctors, hospitals, patients, and innovators. The legislation is expected to be marked up by the end of June.

Alexander and Murray also pledged to include in the markup the bipartisan Prescription Drug Rebates Reform Act of 2019, and the Fair Accountability and Innovative Research (FAIR) Act.

“There's one issue I hear a lot about from Tennesseans, and it 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.”

John Commins is a content specialist and online news editor for HealthLeaders, a Simplify Compliance brand.

Photo credit: Bumble Dee / Shutterstock


KEY TAKEAWAYS

Senate sponsors say the bipartisan Lower Health Care Costs Act of 2019 could be up for a vote on the Senate floor in early July.

Key stakeholders generally support the bill, but the AHA has raised concerns that 'banning so-called 'all or nothing' clauses could lead to even more narrow networks with fewer provider choices for patients, while adversely affecting access to care at rural and community hospitals.'


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