In HELP’s top Republican, K Street hopes for a dealmaker

November 18, 2022 | By MEGAN R. WILSON

Lobbyists are ready for Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) to lead Republicans on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee — touting him as a dealmaker who can work across party lines.

That’ll be necessary because he will be working next to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who is chairing the important panel that covers a swath of issues related to prescription drugs, health insurance and labor policy.

Cassidy is also a shift from Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.), who could have been the committee’s ranking member, but chose instead to be the top Republican on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

“I think the health care industry breathed a sigh of relief Rand is going to HSGAC instead of ranking at HELP,” one lobbyist who works on health care issues texted POLITICO shortly after Paul announced his decision on Thursday. Paul’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

While both are medical professionals, Cassidy is considered more steeped in health care policy with three dedicated health policy staffers in his personal office, larger than most other Senate offices, multiple people said.

“If he wasn’t a senator, I think he’d want to be a health LA [legislative assistant],” said Chris Gillott, a longtime former Cassidy aide now at lobbying firm Invariant. Several people familiar with the senator told POLITICO that Cassidy still reads medical journal articles, for example, and has no qualms about calling the authors with questions.

Ranking agenda: Cassidy told POLITICO on Thursday that while Sanders will be setting the committee’s overall agenda as its leader, he hopes to work on issues including drug pricing, oversight of the implementation of the surprise medical billing law he helped design and raising dyslexia as a policy priority.

Aimee Kuhlman, the vice president of advocacy at the American Hospital Association, said the group is ready to work with the committee — including its leadership — “to advance policies that advance health for patients and communities,” including working on surprise billing issues.

The American Hospital Association and other provider groups have sued the Biden administration over its surprise billing rules governing the dispute resolution process, which they said improperly favor insurers.

Although physicians are often at odds with the insurance industry, Cassidy’s doctor bona fides don’t preclude him from collaborating with them on policy, said a lobbyist for insurers, granted anonymity to speak about lobbying the committee.

“Yes, he’s a provider – but many of us have the same end-result goal to lower health care costs, and that is exactly what we want to do. It’ll take work, it’ll take collaboration – and it’s something that plans are committed to doing,” the lobbyist said. “The first gut instinct is to look at the Sanders-Cassidy chair-ranker relationship and go, ‘How would they get anything done?’ While they view the system from different lenses, I think he’s a dealmaker.”

Bipartisan history: Cassidy worked with Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.) on surprise billing legislation, with Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) on mental health and substance abuse program funding, and with Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) on value-based care issues.

“Generally, I think there is interest in lowering health care costs. I think Senator Cassidy and Senator Sanders come at it from different perspectives on what type of tool or instrument that should be used in order to do that,” said Gillott. “At the end of day, there’s definitely a sensitivity that the patient, the consumer, is being squeezed — and not just with medical inflation, but higher consumer costs in general.”

Come prepared: Several people told POLITICO about a white board Cassidy breaks out during meetings. “He does not hesitate to use it,” said one former Cassidy staffer granted anonymity to speak freely.

“I’ve been in meetings with CEOs and senior executives where he has pulled out a white board, and sketched out and asked for feedback on legislative details that he clearly has been thinking through deeply and working closely on with his colleagues,” said Dean Rosen, a GOP health care lobbyist at Mehlman Consulting.

Several people told POLITICO that anyone looking to influence Cassidy needs to make sure they’re beefed up on the details, and prepared to potentially get pulled into other discussions.

“If you come in for a meeting with him – he’s well prepared, and he’s going to raise very technical issues with you. He’s not just going to wave away, and say ‘Oh, that makes sense,’” the former staffer said.