White House puts off action on surprise medical bills, punts to Congress

The White House is putting off executive action to crack down on surprise medical bills, instead calling on Congress to act on the issue.  

The Trump administration had been working on a potentially far-reaching proposal to protect patients from getting stuck with massive “surprise” medical bills when they get care from a doctor who happened to be outside their insurance network, according to people familiar with the plans. 

But after pushback from health care provider groups, GOP lawmakers, and debate within the administration, the White House is instead issuing a much more limited executive order simply calling on Congress to act on the issue. 

Reining in surprise medical bills has been a priority for both parties for months, and is seen as a key patient protection.  

The order released Thursday calls on the administration to take executive action if Congress does not act by Jan. 1, but it does not specify what that action would be, Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar said on a press call. 

The announcement comes as part of a speech President TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden on Trump’s refusal to commit to peaceful transfer of power: ‘What country are we in?’ Romney: ‘Unthinkable and unacceptable’ to not commit to peaceful transition of power Two Louisville police officers shot amid Breonna Taylor grand jury protests MORE is making Thursday afternoon in North Carolina, where he is seeking to tout his record on health care, an issue where Republicans are being battered by Democrats, ahead of the election. 

The White House had been considering a surprise billing order that would have been the more substantive part of the announcement, coupled with a largely symbolic order on pre-existing conditions. 

But the surprise billing order is now essentially punting the issue to Congress, where both parties have been calling for action for over a year, but nothing has yet passed. 

The White House declined to comment on changes to the surprise billing order.  

One of the options that had been considered, sources say, was an executive order to ban health care providers from surprise billing patients as a condition of participating in the Medicare program, a serious enforcement stick.  

Health care providers pushed back on that idea with the administration, according to a lobbyist. 

Some GOP lawmakers, including members of the conservative Republican Study Committee in the House, also pushed back on the surprise billing ideas being discussed by the White House, according to a House GOP aide. Conservative outside groups also contacted the White House to object. 

There was also internal debate on the issue within the administration, according to an administration official.  

The result is a far narrower order that simply calls on Congress to keep working on the issue. Lawmakers have so far been unable to reach agreement, despite support for taking action from both parties, amid a variety of turf battles between committees and lobbying from powerful doctor and hospital groups, including some backed by private equity companies. 

Azar said on the press call

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House punts marijuana vote

Marijuana plants are seen in an indoor facility in Portland, Maine, in 2017. | AP Photo

A marijuana plant grows under artificial light at an indoor facility in Portland, Maine. | Robert F. Bukaty/AP Photo

WASHINGTON — Marijuana legalization will not get a floor vote in the House until after Election Day, a House Democratic member and several Democratic aides said Thursday.

The MORE Act would remove federal penalties for marijuana, erase some criminal records and create grant programs for people affected by the War on Drugs. House leaders had said earlier this month the bill would come to a vote the week of Sept. 21. Over the last few days, however, they raised pushing it to later in the year to concentrate on getting a coronavirus deal done before the election.


What’s the background? A vote on the House floor for such a bill would be historic. The bill would remove cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act — which classifies it as having no accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse. Until this Congress, such a measure had never passed a House committee, let alone come to a vote before the full chamber.
The bill would remove federal penalties on marijuana and then let states decide if they want to legalize.

The bill has been touted as a step toward criminal justice reform, and progressives said they believed it would have helped increase voter turnout for both House and Senate races. But moderates expressed worry that passing it before a coronavirus deal was reached could hurt them on Nov. 3. Senate Republicans have already attacked Democrats over the vote, saying they have time for marijuana but not to pass aid for Americans hurting from the pandemic. House Democrats passed a coronavirus aid bill in May, while Republicans’ latest attempt at a bill did not clear a procedural vote in the Senate.

Advocates and pro-cannabis lawmakers also had hoped for a vote on the marijuana bill before the election, but they said that a strong showing is more important, given that this bill is not likely to pass the Senate this year and the House will need to revisit it in the next Congress.

What’s next? Congress will be back after the election for a lame duck session, and Reps. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) and Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) say a vote on the bill will happen before the end of the year.

“The leadership has now given an ironclad commitment that the House will consider the bill this fall,” the Congressional Cannabis Caucus co-chairs said.

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