WASHINGTON DC (NEXSTAR) – A Senate committee passed a sweeping bipartisan bill that tackles a wide range of big-ticket healthcare concerns.
The legislation aims to prevent surprise medical bills, lower prescription drug costs and even raise the nationwide tobacco purchasing age to 21.
Wednesday’s committee vote, 20-3, marked a rare bipartisan consensus on one of the most divisive topics in Congress.
Two lawmakers who are known as some of the best dealmakers in the Senate, Lamar Alexander, D-Tennessee, and Patty Murray, D-Washington, took a different approach to the healthcare debate, steering the legislation from the polarizing issue of Obamacare to focus on these other areas.
“You’ll never get another surprise medical bill for that reason,” Sen. Lamar said.
Congress and President Donald Trump want to take patients out of the middle when it comes to the unexpected and often pricey charges from a provider that isn’t in their insurance network.
But leaving it up to the doctors, hospitals and insurance companies is where the agreement ends.
“First I thought since the problem was out-of-network doctors just put them in network. That didn’t work that well,” Alexander said.
Sen. Alexander said the general consensus among Congress to stop surprise emergency bills now seems to be moving toward a benchmark payment system based on the median price of in-network doctors in the same area.
“So, what a doctor gets paid in Alaska will be very different from what a doctor gets paid outside Miami,” he said.
Louisiana Senator Bill Cassidy (R) supports the benchmark but worries how it’s set by an insurance company with no input from doctors or hospitals.
So, his bill takes it one step further.
“It does leave an arbitration at the end to determine is this fair,” Sen. Cassidy said.
Tennessee Senator Marsha Blackburn (R) worries the changes could still harm reimbursement rates for rural hospitals.
“We want to help them keep those doors open and make certain there is access to that care that is needed in our rural areas,” she said.
Alexander said discussions will continue in the weeks to come to make sure there are no unintended consequences. He hopes the Senate will send the legislation over to the House before the August recess.
Lowering the cost of healthcare is already one of the central issues of next year’s election campaigns, and it’s a key priority for Alexander before he retires at the end of 2020.