Democrats launched a drive at both ends of the Capitol on Wednesday to strip the insurance industry of its decades-old exemption from federal antitrust laws, part of an increasingly bare-knuckled struggle over landmark health care legislation sought by President Barack Obama.
If enacted, the change would put an end to “price-fixing, bid-rigging and market allocation in the health and medical malpractice” insurance areas, said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Leahy said he would seek a vote on the plan when the Senate debates health care legislation in the next few weeks.
Leahy made his comments at virtually the same time the House Judiciary Committee voted 20-9 to end an industry exemption that dates to 1945. Three Republicans supported the move.
Senior Democratic officials in the House said the leadership was inclined to incorporate the measure into the broader health care bill expected to be brought to the floor for a vote within a few weeks. No final decision has been made, they added.
In response, an industry official said Democrats were targeting a problem that does not exist.
The events coincided with a vote in the Senate to sidetrack legislation averting a 21 percent cut in Medicare payments for doctors in January and raising their fees by $247 billion over a decade. The 47-53 vote was 13 short of the 60 needed to advance the bill, reflecting concerns that the measure would have raised deficits. The result was a defeat for Democrats and an embarrassment for the American Medical Association, which had mounted a seven-figure advertising effort to assure passage of one of its top priorities.
Republicans grumbled that Senate Democrats timed the offensive on antitrust matters to obscure their defeat on the bill setting pay rates for doctors, a measure that GOP leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., called “the Senate’s first vote on health care this year.”
Even so, taken together, the threats to revoke long-standing antitrust protections reflect the fury Democrats have projected in response to recent insurance industry attempts to influence the shape of legislation. The events occurred less than a week after the insurers’ trade association issued a report saying a measure in the Senate Finance Committee would produce sharp increases in premiums for millions of people who currently have insurance.
The McCarran-Ferguson Act of 1945 gives states authority to regulate the insurance industry for antitrust matters, and the companies are exempt from federal jurisdiction.