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On June 18, a key Senate committee held hearings and says it is ready to start marking up a bill next week designed to contain healthcare costs.

The wide-ranging legislative package on curbing healthcare 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.

The 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.

During the hearings, there was broad support among the witnesses for some of the legislation’s transparency measures, especially the creation of a non-governmental nonprofit organization to collect claims data from private health plans, Medicare and some states to create what’s called an all-payer claims database. That could help policymakers better understand the true cost of care, these experts told the committee.
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) expressed trepidation about the all-payer claims database, noting that increased transparency could hurt rural hospitals, which typically charge higher prices than those in cities because their patient base is small, and they need to bring in enough revenue to cover fixed costs.

The witnesses also offered support for eliminating “gag clauses” between doctors and health plans. These stipulations often prevent providers from telling patients the cost of a procedure or service.