Washington, D.C. – One year ago today – as part of the Energy and Commerce Committee’s ongoing effort to end surprise medical bills – members of the Health Subcommittee heard a powerful story that detailed the real-world impact surprise bills have on American families. Sonji Wilkes, one of the witnesses in that hearing, shared the story of how her family received a jaw-dropping surprise medical bill of $50,000 after her newborn son received treatment at the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU). Although Wilkes had insurance and the hospital where she gave birth was in-network, the NICU had been contracted out.
“Why would I check if the NICU just 50 steps away from the room that I gave birth in was in-network? I think any reasonable person would assume it to be because it seems reckless and cruel that it would not be,” said Wilkes at the subcommittee hearing.
Click here or the image above to watch the video
Stories like the one shared by the Wilkes family are far too common. Although this is not a problem that Congress created, E&C GOP Leader Greg Walden (R-OR) and Chairman Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-NJ) set out to fix it. About a month before the hearing, Walden and Pallone released a statement that they were “…committed to working together on bipartisan legislation that protects patients and families from surprise medical bills and the crippling financial debt that comes with them.” The following week they released a draft bipartisan bill to do just that. Vox called it, “…the most robust proposal yet.”
The bipartisan No Surprises Act unanimously passed the full committee a month after the hearing and was ready for the House floor. Unfortunately, no further action has been taken on the bill.
Walden and Pallone have pressed ahead, launching a bipartisan investigation into the root causes of surprise billing. On September 16th, they sent letters to private equity firms requesting information.
“We are concerned about the increasing role that private equity firms appear to be playing in physician staffing in our nation’s hospitals, and the potential impact these firms are having on our rising health care costs,” Walden and Pallone wrote in the letters.
In November, Walden told President Donald Trump at the White House, “We should have the right to know what these things cost. I was here with you when you talked about surprise medical billing. We are very close to legislating on that, Mr. President, and that is a huge win for consumers.” That same month, Walden and Pallone penned an op-ed in The Hill to continue making the case to pass the No Surprises Act. In the op-ed, Walden shared a story of an Oregonian receiving a $454,000 surprise bill for treatment for a heart attack, and Pallone shared a story of a patient in New Jersey receiving almost a $6,000 surprise medical bill “for an ice pack and bandage.”
In December, an agreement was announced between E&C and Senate HELP Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN). Soon after, the White House voiced their support of the deal, along with 27 patient and consumer advocacy groups. Unfortunately, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi refused to include this measure in the end-of-year spending package.
Walden said at the time, “It’s unfortunate that politics got in the way of protecting patients from the rip-off of surprise medical billing.”
We know the American people want to see an end to surprise billing. In fact, a Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that nearly 8 in 10 Americans want a legislative fix to surprise billing. President Trump has picked up the rallying cry and has continued to push for Congress to get him a bill he can sign into law that will protect patients from this cynical practice.
Despite the setback legislatively, Congress’ surprise billing investigations have continued.
Now, the country is in a public health emergency with the COVID-19 pandemic, and E&C GOP Leader Walden has never stopped pushing for protections from surprise billing. We know this can be done. In fact, the Trump administration acted to protect COVID-19 patients from surprise medical bills by forbidding providers from balance billing if they receive money from the Provider Relief Fund.
In a recent Wall Street Journal interview Walden said, “There’s a certain irony here that we were able to put into statute that you can’t surprise-bill a COVID patient and nobody objected, but if you have a heart condition that pops up and you’re out of network, it’s OK? I don’t think so.”
Over the last year we’ve heard even more stories about how families’ lives have been turned upside down by surprise medical bills, including during the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s time to end this practice for once and for all.
As E&C Republican Leader Walden continues to say, “The system is being gamed and the consumers are losing. And we’re going to put a stop to it.”