Senators Agree Surprise Medical Bills Must Go. But How?

Two years, 16 hearings and one massive bipartisan package of legislation later, a key Senate committee says it is ready to start marking up a bill next week designed to contain health care costs. But it might not be easy since lawmakers and stakeholders at a final hearing Tuesday showed they are still far apart on one simple aspect of the proposal.

That sticking point: a formula for paying for surprise medical bills, those unexpected and often high charges patients face when they get care from a doctor or hospital that isn’t in their insurance network. It’s a cause that has been taken up by President Donald Trump and various bipartisan groups of lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

The wide-ranging legislative package on curbing health care costs is sponsored by Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.), the chairman and ranking member of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee. Given the committee’s influence, and because this legislation has bipartisan support in the Senate where not many bills are moving, industry observers are taking the HELP panel’s proposal very seriously.

Alexander and Murray’s bill lays out three options for paying surprise medical bills but does not specify which path the final legislation should take. Advocates for each of the choices were among the five witnesses Tuesday.

Their positions fell along familiar fault lines. Everyone acknowledged that patients who stumble into a surprise bill because their emergency care was handled at a facility not in their insurance network or because a doctor at their in-network hospital doesn’t take the patient’s plan should not have to pay more than they would for an in-patient service. But they differ on how much doctors, hospitals and other providers should be compensated and how the disputes should be resolved.

Tom Nickels, an executive vice president of the American Hospital Association, cautioned against using benchmarks to set pay levels, such as local customary averages or a price set in relation to Medicare. He said such a plan might underpay providers and hospitals could lose their leverage to negotiate with insurers.