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Health & Medical

Ideas to curb surprise medical bills percolate with rare bipartisan push

Donald Trump
Donald Trump

Surrounded by patients who told horror stories of being stuck with hefty bills, President Donald Trump recently waded into a widespread health care problem for which almost everyone – even those with insurance – is at risk: surprise medical billing.

Trump’s declaration that taming unexpected bills would be a top priority for his administration echoed through the halls of Congress, where a handful of Republican and Democratic lawmakers have been studying the problem the past couple of years.

The sudden presidential interest has lawmakers on both sides of the aisle expressing optimism about attacking a problem that has affected 57 percent of American adults, according to a University of Chicago survey conducted last summer. Sen. Lamar Alexander, the Tennessee Republican who chairs the influential Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, recently told reporters that he expects to see surprise billing legislation “in the next several months.”

Alexander is encouraged by the movement on both sides of the aisle, said a committee spokesman – giving a particular nod to the efforts of Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-Louisiana. “The chairman looks forward to reviewing their work and hopes it leads to a bipartisan consensus on how to address the issue,” the spokesman added.

“Indications in Congress have always been that this would be something they could do on a bipartisan basis,” said Paul Ginsburg, a health economist at the Brookings Institution, a D.C.-based think tank.

Attention to this practice, which involves charging patients for care that is more expensive than anticipated or not covered by their insurance, has grown.

While appetite for policymaking is on the upswing, the details of a possible solution remain up in the air.

The Trump administration has not laid out precisely how it would take on surprise bills. But key lawmakers, including Alexander and Cassidy, have met with administration officials to discuss how to reduce health care costs.

With an eye toward drafting legislation, these two senators and several others have been consulting with billing experts, as well as state and local officials, about the biggest challenges and most promising approaches being used around the country.

And, though Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, has yet to address the issue, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, said it would be a priority.

“Ending surprise billing is an important part of Democrats’ ongoing effort to lower out-of-pocket health costs, and we’ll be working on it in the coming Congress,” said Henry Connelly, a Pelosi spokesman.

Previously introduced bills would impose new notification requirements, as well as limitations on what doctors and hospitals might charge patients. They would regulate bills for either emergency care at an out-of-network facility, or non-emergency care when the facility is in-network but the doctor is not.

A draft bill pushed by Cassidy – a gastroenterologist by trade and the leader of a small, bipartisan group of senators studying the issue – would cap what patients pay, and prohibit balance billing, when a patient is expected to make up the difference between what the provider charged and what the insurer paid. Instead of arbitration, the state would set the amount a health plan must pay. In the absence of a local policy, health plans would default to a federal formula outlined in the bill. (This is similar to laws passed in California and Connecticut.)

A bill from Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-New Hampshire, would tackle the issue by preventing a hospital, physician group or other medical provider from charging patients more for an emergency procedure than they would have expected to pay for in-network care. It would then establish an arbitration process to determine what the patient’s health plan should pay. (This is similar to laws passed in New York and New Jersey.)

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