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Key House and Senate health leaders reach deal to stop surprise medical bills

Key House and Senate health care leaders in both parties reached a deal on Sunday on legislation to protect patients from surprise medical bills. 

The deal between House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.), Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), the top Republican on that panel, and Senate Health Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) is a step forward for the effort, which is seen as a rare area of possible bipartisan action this year. 

President Trump has also called for action on the issue. The legislation would protect patients from getting hit with massive bills when they go to the emergency room and one of the doctors caring for them happens to be outside their insurance network. 

“I do not think it is possible to write a bill that has broader agreement than this among Senate and House Democrats and Republicans on Americans’ number one financial concern: what they pay out of their own pockets for health care,” Alexander said in a statement. 

The deal also includes other health care measures, such as an extension of funding for community health centers, raising the purchasing age for tobacco to 21 and drug pricing transparency measures. 

Backers of the deal are hoping to include it in a must-pass government funding deal that faces a Dec. 20 deadline. 

There are still obstacles, though. Congressional leadership has not yet signed onto the deal.

There are also still disagreements over the details of the surprise medical billing legislation, with doctors and hospitals lobbying hard on the issue and worried about cuts to their payments. 

It was not yet clear on Sunday whether the lawmakers more aligned with doctors and hospitals would sign onto this deal. 

Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), the top Democrat on the Senate Health Committee, also was not listed among the supporters of the deal. 

“Senator Murray believes the overall agreement takes important steps forward on a number of issues impacting patients and families, and is working with some members of her caucus on concerns they still have,” said Helen Hare, a spokeswoman for Murray. “She didn’t want to sign onto a press release until those were worked through.”

Sens. Bill Cassidy (R-La.), Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.), and Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), who had backed a rival bill more favored by doctors groups, released a statement sounding generally supportive of the deal but they stopped short of fully endorsing it, saying “final details” needed to be worked out. 

“As our discussions continue around the final details, we are encouraged that we’re one step closer to giving patients these vital protections,” the senators said. “Patients have waited long enough, and we remain hopeful that we can get this done by the end of the year.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) released a statement praising the inclusion of his legislation with Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) to raise the tobacco age to 21, but not tipping his hand on the other provisions. 

“I’m pleased to see bipartisan, bicameral progress continues on solutions to address the teen vaping crisis, primarily through my legislation with Senator Kaine to increase the tobacco purchasing age to 21,” McConnell said. “I look forward to reviewing the details on this and the other policies included in the package announced today.”

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