Murkowski has health care on her mind

Alaska’s senior senator talks about ending ‘surprise’ medical billing.

U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, sat down with the Empire Tuesday to discuss her recent work in Washington and the groups she’s meeting with in Alaska as she crisscrosses the state during the five-week recess from the Senate.

“We’ve done a back-of-the-envelope mapping of the trip … it’s 15,000 miles in state, so I’m making tracks,” she said.

Murkowski said that one of the most pressing concerns she hears about is health care and its costs. The senator was meeting with representatives from Bartlett Regional Hospital to discuss health care costs and access to care in Alaska.

In Washington, D.C., Murkowski is a member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee which had recently reviewed a bill the senator said she was hopeful to have before the full Senate when it reconvenes.

The Lower Health Care Costs Act is aimed at reducing the overall cost of health care through provisions such as price transparency and reducing the costs of pharmaceuticals.

The goal of that bill, she said, was to focus on the cost of the care itself, rather than the coverage.

“If we can bring down the cost of care, maybe the cost of coverage isn’t going to be so sky-high,” Murkowski said.

She said that the committee had been working on a provision within the bill to end “surprise medical billing.” Often patients can receive bills for out-of-network costs they didn’t even know took place, something which the bill is seeking to in some way resolve.

The provision wouldn’t prevent that from happening per se, but would have the negotiations over those costs take place between the health care provider and the insurer. Under the current system, Murkowski said, the burden would be on the patient to resolve whatever issue may have arisen.

“It’s a headache in the first place and it’s even worse when you’re not well,” she said.

Murkowski also said that she was working on a provision that would force pharmaceutical manufacturers to justify rate increases on their medications above a certain amount. She cited the increase in the cost of the Epipen in 2016 when its manufacturer, Mylan, increased the cost by several hundred dollars.

U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, speaks during an interview at the Juneau Empire on Tuesday, Aug. 13, 2109. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, speaks during an interview at the Juneau Empire on Tuesday, Aug. 13, 2109. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

Currently, an increase in insurance rates above a certain percent has to be approved by the Division of Insurance, Murkowski said.

“There’s kind of a safety valve there,” she said. “We don’t have any such valve when it comes to the world of pharmaceuticals.”

Mass shootings

Also contained in the Lower Health Care Costs Act were provisions concerning mental health, something which has received heightened attention recently in the wake of the mass shootings in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio.

Murkowski said that across a number of initiatives in Congress this year, provisions for mental health coverage had been included.

“We have been really trying to focus much more legislative attention and federal dollars towards those programs to address the real discrepancies we’ve seen in not addressing mental health for so many years,” she said.

In regards to gun violence, Congress will be taking some action in the future, though the Senator was not able to go into specifics.

“The president has made very clear that he expects (Congress) to take up, he has called it ‘gun legislation,’ what that legislation entails at this point in time I’m not in a position to detail what it might be,” she said.

She mentioned the “FixNICS” program, a firearms industry-supported initiative which sought to expand the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System.

Murkowski also pointed to the STOP School Violence Act of 2018, which allows for an anonymous reporting system for potential threats of school violence as well as funds for security infrastructure at schools.

Lastly, Murkowski mentioned the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s inability to research gun violence.

“We pulled that back and said ‘you can and you should,” study gun violence, Murkowski said.

Murkowski was referring to provision known as the “Dickey Amendment” from 1996. That provision, supported by the National Rifle Association, prevented the CDC from using funds that “may be used to advocate or promote gun control.”

While that amendment remains, the Washington Post reported last year that Congress clarified that the CDC could in fact conduct research on gun violence, it simply needs appropriations to do so.

“We removed the limitation, but we haven’t really done anything on the funding side, on the appropriations side, to allow the CDC to move forward with that,” Murkowski said. “That’s something I certainly think we need to see and I think we need to do it yesterday.”

Murkowski said that she was aware that there were concerns on the part of gun advocates that the research would be biased, but, she said that should not prevent the research from being done in the first place.

“We should not be afraid to do a critical review (of gun violence) and understand, are we not doing enough on the mental health side? Is it just the lure of an AR-15? I don’t know but what we do know is that the level of gun violence has escalated to a point in this country that none of us should say is acceptable,” she said.

Murkowski said that the Lower Health Care Cost Act had broad support and she was hopeful that it would pass through the Senate it reconvened.

”I’m actually pretty hopeful that we’re going to see not only a bipartisan measure that will move through the Senate but one that is far more robust than people think is possible at a time when they’ve written Congress off to be entirely dysfunctional.”


• Contact reporter Peter Segall at 523-2228 or psegall@juneauempire.com.


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