Members of the Senate Finance Committee today voted 10-13 to kill a proposed amendment that could have protected health plans’ right to share views on legislation with enrollees.

All Democratic committee members voted against the amendment, which was proposed by Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., and all Republican members, including Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, who is seen as a swing vote on health legislation, voted for it.

The Finance Committee is holding a “markup,” or bill drafting session, to review and revised the America’s Health Future Act bill, a health reform bill developed by Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont.

The federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services recently wrote to Medicare Advantage plans to forbid them from sending mailings to plan enrollees telling them that health reform bills now before Congress might disrupt their Medicare coverage.

CMS officials suggested that the communications might violate privacy provisions or other provisions in the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996.

The proposed Kyl amendment would have stated that HIPAA places no limits on a health plans’ communications with enrollees about legislative matters.

“We all have a right of free speech,” Kyl said.

Free speech includes the right to be wrong, and Republicans believe that health plans’ warnings about the possible damage that bills such as the current version of the AHFA bill could do to the Medicare Advantage system are correct, Kyl said.

“We will never conclude work on this important legislation if the debate is chilled,” Kyl said.

Baucus countered that Medicare plan enrollees often think that the carriers are part of the government, and that the carriers intentionally foster that belief.

“There’s no First Amendment right to lie,” Baucus said. “We should not let companies take advantage of their relationship with seniors.”

Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said the health insurers involved with recent health reform mailings have apparently been using plan funds and mailing lists that belong to the plans.

The situation might be different if the plans were using their executives’ own cash and independently purchased mailing lists, Schumer said.

Earlier during the markup, Republicans on the committee failed to persuade the full committee to take two weeks to turn a summary of the bill into formal legislative language before holding a vote.

“We’re talking about trillions of dollars,” Snowe said. “What’s the rush?”

But Republicans did succeed at getting the committee to agree to take an extra week to get a preliminary Congressional Budget Office analysis of the effects of the proposed bill before holding a vote.

Meanwhile, Republicans and Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee voted 51-0 to add a price disclosure provision supported by Republicans to that committee’s version of H.R. 3200, the America’s Affordable Health Choices Act bill.

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