If Democratic candidates Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff both win Senate seats in Tuesday’s runoff election, and give the Democrats majority power in that chamber, it will change not only what type of healthcare policies are passed by the Senate but which healthcare bills get brought up in the first place.
“The big thing that it means is that [Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) no longer controls what bills even get a vote” in the full chamber, said one policy advocate who asked to speak on background. “Last year, a bill on prescription drug pricing passed on a somewhat bipartisan basis out of the Senate Finance Committee,” with the blessing of committee chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), “and it never even got a vote. It certainly would have passed the House. So it’s not so much that you’re going to see a lot of partisan bills passed with [Vice President Kamala] Harris casting the tie-breaking vote … it’s that things will actually get voted on.”
Leadership of Senate committees also will change, noted Dan Mendelson, founder of Avalere Health, a consulting firm here. And because of that, “you’d see the Senate Finance Committee focused on coverage, and you’d see kind of an aggressive push to figure out how do we expand exchanges, expand Medicaid, and get more people covered in the U.S.”
One of the top priorities will be shoring up the Affordable Care Act (ACA), he continued. “There is no consensus on how to replace the law if it’s struck down by the Supreme Court. Legislation is necessary on an urgent basis.” Some other issues, such as drug costs, “are more likely to be addressed through regulatory approaches rather than legislative ones initially,” Mendelson said.
Marie Fishpaw, director of domestic policy studies at the Heritage Foundation, a right-leaning think tank here, suggested that expanded federal control of healthcare would be under consideration. “Last Congress, a majority of Democrats in the House of Representatives and 15 Democratic senators have already signaled their support for Medicare for All, so we can expect the left will push for more government control of healthcare should they get more power in Congress,” she said in an email. “Whether that happens by expanding Obamacare with a public option or setting up Medicare for All, it all leads to the same outcome in which government officials in Washington have more decision-making power over the kind of healthcare that Americans receive.”
Joe Antos, PhD, scholar in healthcare and retirement policy at the American Enterprise Institute, another right-leaning think tank, said in an email that “with Harris as the tie breaker, Biden will need to avoid issues where Democrats are not solidly behind him (at least Democratic senators). Drug pricing limits and another COVID spending bill are the most likely to be enacted, perhaps fairly quickly.”
The COVID bill will include “another trillion or two,” Antos said, because “despite all the moaning on TV about lack of state funding, the problem isn’t money — it’s organization and the skilled people to wield the needle. I think there would be more money for states and public health.”
As for the ACA, Biden “might try to reinstate the individual mandate with a penalty/tax, but that would only be a political show since the mandate really hasn’t mattered much in increasing number with insurance (after the first 2 years of ACA enrollment),” said Antos. “Increasing access to the premium subsidy is a possibility, but the true left won’t like it.” On the regulatory side, Antos predicted that Biden will “rewrite Medicaid guidance and reject waiver projects that tighten Medicaid rules,” such as waivers seeking to add work requirements for Medicaid.
Like Mendelson, Antos expects to see Biden push for action to lower prescription drug prices — possibly legislatively. “He would even get some Republican votes for limiting what Medicare will pay for Part B drugs and maybe even Part D drugs,” he said. “This isn’t Medicare ‘negotiating’ drug prices — it’s just old-fashioned price setting, which Medicare has done for decades.” Such a thing would be easier to implement in Part B “since we are already in a price-setting regime.” And, because the price controls would only be in effect for Medicare, “prices paid by everyone else will likely rise,” Antos added.
Less likely to succeed is Biden’s proposal for an advisory board that would consider drugs’ therapeutic value in its recommendations on prices. That is “a complex version of the Independent Payment Advisory Board, which never got off the ground,” Antos said.
Biden also may try to ease rules related to funding of reproductive healthcare organizations like Planned Parenthood that provide abortions, but legislative action in that regard would be a tough slog, Antos said, even with a nominally Democrat-controlled Senate. But Biden “could do something administratively” as the Trump administration has done in the other direction.
Senate confirmations of Cabinet members, such as California Attorney General Xavier Becerra as Secretary of Health and Human Services, would also be smoother under a majority-Democratic Senate, said Mendelson.
And what if the Republicans retain the Georgia Senate seats — and their majority? “The primary strategy the Republican leadership has pushed is to slow things down and to kill major legislation, and that goal gets facilitated if there’s a Republican majority,” he added. With McConnell keeping control of the Senate’s agenda, “things will run much more slowly and there will be a mentality of not doing things.”
But it could go the other way as well, Mendelson noted. “The optimistic scenario is that Senate Republicans feel like they have something lose in the midterms in 2022, and they need to build some sort of record of legislative accomplishments.” In that case, premium support for ACA marketplace enrollees and bringing down costs in the small-group insurance market might be in play, he said.