President Donald Trump is on the ropes.
He has refused to turn the corner on the scandals that have been a trademark of his first three years in office. Fresh off impeachment, he’s already mired in another scandal after tampering in the sentencing of crony Roger Stone. And thankfully, most of his major policy initiatives have flamed out in Congress. Anyone remember infrastructure week?
So why, with the 2020 election just months away, would Democrats hand Donald Trump a major policy win on the most important issue in America?
In 2018, Democrats were swept into office by voters who demanded action on healthcare. For years, Republicans have tampered with President Barack Obama’s healthcare reforms, attempting to make them as ineffectual as possible. Americans recoiled, asking Congress to fight for more affordable, more accessible healthcare.
Now, President Trump is putting his weight behind a plan that does just the opposite. For months, Congress has been working on a solution to surprise medical bills – the unexpected, unwelcome expenses that often arise when a patient has no choice but to receive out-of-network medical care. This can happen, for example, as the result of an emergency room visit, when patients just don’t have the luxury of figuring out whether the closest hospital and every specialist on staff is part of their insurance network. Patients need medical care, and instead of paying the bill, insurers pass the costs onto the sick and the injured while they are still recovering.
There’s a right way and a wrong way to tackle this problem. Unsurprisingly, President Trump has chosen the wrong way. He’s backed a proposal by Republican Senator Lamar Alexander, the Chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee. The Trump/Alexander approach is, unsurprisingly, a giveaway to insurance companies – the very party responsible for surprise medical bills in the first place. Trump has called on other congressional leaders to craft copycat legislation and get it to his desk.
The HELP bill purports to end surprise medical bills through a mechanism known as ‘benchmarking.’ Benchmarking is nothing more than an insurance industry-backed idea that allows them to maximize their profits and make it more difficult and more expensive for patients to get medical care. Under this proposal insurance companies are allowed to benchmark their out-of-network payments to their own in-network rate. In simpler terms: Trump wants to let big insurance companies set their own prices. This system allows them to cancel existing contracts to drive down the in-network obligations to manipulate the out-of-network rate, kicking patients out of network in the process. As a result, patients have fewer options and more out-of-pocket costs, while insurance profits continue to skyrocket.
It’s not surprising that Trump would back this big insurance bonanza. What is surprising is that Democratic leaders in Congress are more than willing to follow his lead, delivering him a political win in an election year and hurting patients in the process. House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone, a Democrat, has already cut a deal with Sen. Alexander to move ‘benchmarking’ through his committee and try to deliver it to Trump’s desk. Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, as well as the House Ways and Means Committee and the House Education and Labor Committee have already supported similar proposals. This is madness and Democrats should stop in their tracks before they hand Trump a victory he doesn’t deserve on the backs of patients.
Instead of supporting Trump’s big insurance giveaway, Democrats should support competing legislation that actually holds insurers accountable for surprise medical bills. Introduced by California Democrat Raul Ruiz – and more importantly, opposed by the Trump White House – this proposal that uses Independent Dispute Resolution (IDR) to stop surprise medical bills. Under IDR, patients never receive a surprise medical bill because they are only responsible for their in-network payment. Then, providers and insurers can use a simple, third-party arbitration process to determine a fair payment. Patients are protected and insurers are required to pay their fair share.
Democrats should be in the business of standing up for patients and standing up to big insurers – and Donald Trump. It’s time for Democrats in Congress to shift gears and back IDR, a plan that actually protects patients from surprise medical bills. Continuing down the path toward benchmarking is a double whammy for Democrats – it’s bad policy and it gives Trump a big win in an election year. We can do better.