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Rep. Richard Neal (D-Mass.) speaks to reporters on Wednesday, January 29, 2020. (Photo: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

Amid Tense Primary Fight, Powerful Democrat Rep. Richie Neal Condemned for Supporting Predatory Medical Billing Policy

"Neal is one of the most powerful members of Congress, and it's clear he's using that power to benefit Wall Street fund managers instead of regular Americans."

Eoin Higgins

Rep. Richard Neal, the powerful Democrat who chairs the House Ways and Means Committee, is coming under renewed criticism from his primary opponent and progressive groups over his blocking of legislation that would end surprise medical billing, a practice that hits American patients with $40 billion in unanticipated charges for out of network services every year. 

"Congressman Neal needs to stop obstructing efforts to protect people from predatory behavior like surprise billing and start being part of the solution."
—Sarah Miller, American Economic Liberties Project

"Richie Neal is one of the most powerful members of Congress, and it's clear he's using that power to benefit Wall Street fund managers instead of regular Americans," said Michael Kink, counsel to the Center for Popular Democracy, one of seven groups calling on the Massachusetts congressman to allow legislation ending the practice to go forward. "It's time to put people over profits, end surprise billing, and crack down on private equity greed instead of enabling it."

The Center for Popular Democracy was joined in a letter (pdf) to Neal on ending the practice by the American Economic Liberties Project, Americans for Financial Reform, Private Equity Stakeholder Project, Public Citizen, Revolving Door Project, and Strong Economy for All.

As Common Dreams reported, Neal in December 2019 allied with ranking Ways and Means member Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Texas) to spike legislation from the House Energy and Commerce Committee and the Senate Health Committee's respective chairmen, Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) and Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), that would have ended the surprise billing practice.

The move drew criticism at the time from a number of progressive groups and advocates, including Holyoke, Massachusetts Mayor Alex Morse, who is running against Neal in the September 1 Democratic primary.

"It's evident who Congressman Neal is working for," Morse told Buzzfeed News. "He's certainly not working for the people."

Politico reported Monday that Neal appears unlikely to change his mind this time. 

In a statement Tuesday welcoming the endorsement of the 23,000-strong Massachusetts Nurses Association (MNA), Morse referred to Neal's blockage of the legislation, noting the congressman's closeness with the financial and healthcare industries.

"Where my opponent is racking up donations from big pharma and the very private equity firms that exploit patients with surprise billing, I could not be more proud to have the Massachusetts Nurses Association in our grassroots movement," said Morse. 

Americans for Financial Reform private equity campaigns manager Ricardo Valadez, in a statement explaining his group's advocacy for an end to surprise billing, said that the damage done by the practice for profit is obscene.

"Private equity is the driving force behind the epidemic of surprise billing," said Valadez. "Their interest, money, and influence, must not be allowed to prevent common sense measures to stop them from gouging families."

The coronavirus pandemic is making things worse for those already struggling, said Eagan Kemp, Public Citizen's healthcare policy advocate.

"It is no surprise that private equity firms are seeking to maintain the status quo so they can continue squeezing obscene profits out of the American people, even if it means driving them into medical debt or bankruptcy during a global pandemic," said Kemp. "What remains frustrating is that this problem would already be solved if it weren't for politicians taking private equity money and doing their bidding by blocking legislation that would ban surprise bills."

Bottom line, said Sarah Miller, executive director of the American Economic Liberties Project, is that the congressman needs to put people first.

"Congressman Neal needs to stop obstructing efforts to protect people from predatory behavior like surprise billing and start being part of the solution," said Miller.

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