The Senate Health Committee on Wednesday voted to advance a bipartisan package aimed at lowering health care costs to the full Senate.
The measure from Sens. (R-Tenn.) and (D-Wash.), who are known as two of the best bipartisan dealmakers in the Senate, marks a rare bipartisan area of cooperation on the highly divisive issue of health care.
The package passed the committee on a vote of 20-3. Sens. (I-Vt.) and (D-Mass.), both strong progressives who are running for president, voted “no” in absentia. Sanders’s office said he opposed the bill because it lacked enough funding for community health centers. Warren said that while the bill had “important provisions” it failed to address GOP “sabotage” of ObamaCare or soaring drug costs.
Sen. (R-Ky.), a strong conservative, also voted “no.”
Otherwise, the committee was remarkably united. Alexander purposely steered the bill to avoid the polarizing issue of ObamaCare and to focus on other areas.
The measure protects patients from getting massive “surprise” medical bills when they get care from out-of-network doctors and restricts anti-competitive provisions in insurance contracts with hospitals that can drive up costs.
The package also includes a bill from Senate Majority Leader (R-Ky.) and Sen. (D-Va.) to raise the age to buy tobacco from 18 to 21. The inclusion of that provision, which drew praise from McConnell, could improve the package’s chances of coming up for a vote.
Alexander said Wednesday that he hopes McConnell will bring the package up for a full Senate vote before the end of July.
The Finance and Judiciary committees are also working on health care packages aimed at lowering drug costs. Alexander said those could be added if they are ready but that he does not want to wait for a full Senate vote for his package past the end of July if other panels’ legislation is not ready.
Sen. (D-Conn.) pushed to call attention to the Republican-backed lawsuit currently making its way through the courts that aims to overturn the entire Affordable Care Act. He offered an amendment to require a report on the lawsuit’s effects, but Republicans voted it down.
“Those are issues for another time and another bill and another day,” Alexander said of the debate over ObamaCare.
Sens. (D-Wis.) and (R-Ind.) also won a vote to include their provision requiring drug companies to submit justifications for large price increases. Several Republicans voted for the amendment despite the opposition of Alexander, who said he wanted to make changes.
Updated at 3:16 p.m.