The leaders of the House and Senate are warning nearly two dozen Indiana hospital systems and health insurers their prices better drop to something closer to the national average, and soon, or else legislation to statutorily reduce prices will be on the way.

The unusual threat issued Tuesday by House Speaker Todd Huston, R-Fishers, and Senate President Rod Bray, R-Martinsville, came as the Indiana General Assembly convened its 10-week annual session — the second in a row amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

But unlike last year, COVID-19 prevention solely is in the hands of each legislator. There's no Statehouse vaccine mandate, face mask requirement, social distancing, plexiglass protectors, or any of the measures commonly used to minimize the spread of the coronavirus.

That made for a normal-seeming first day as lists of proposed new laws were read and committees began meeting to evaluate, debate, revise and advance the measures for further action by each chamber.

At the same time, there's nothing normal about top Republicans demanding operational changes at many of the state's hospitals and health insurers, let alone promising to use the power of the state to potentially force price reductions at private businesses.

"Studies continue to show health care prices in Indiana remain some of the highest in the nation, and it's time for that to change," Bray said.

"We understand the health care industry and its pricing structures are complicated, but that's not an excuse to ignore the problem and let prices grow — at a rate significantly higher than inflation — at the expense of hardworking Hoosiers and business owners."

Huston said he's "personally heard from countless Hoosiers and employers who are rightfully frustrated and overwhelmed by health care prices."

"The time is now to bring stakeholders together and craft a plan that would deliver tangible savings to payers. Our goal is to maintain a high quality of care while bringing costs down."

The legislative leaders said they're willing to give the state's health care industry until April 1 to propose and implement specific measures that will bring Indiana hospital prices in line with the national average by 2025, instead of remaining 50% or more above the average prices elsewhere.

"Absent a viable plan, we will be left with no choice but to pursue legislation to statutorily reduce prices," they said.

The Indiana Hospital Association did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the lawmakers' letter that also was sent to Franciscan Health, among other providers and insurers.

The warning comes as House Republicans are poised Thursday to begin advancing House Bill 1001, which would sharply limit the ability of all Indiana businesses, including health care providers, to implement COVID-19 vaccine requirements on their employees — even if a company believes a vaccinated workforce is best for its business.

"We need to make sure Hoosier workers are protected," said state Rep. Matt Lehman, R-Berne, the House Republican floor leader.

Statehouse Democrats, meanwhile, took a tentative step into the individual freedom and less government box Republicans seemingly are abandoning by calling for programs to develop and attract a highly skilled Indiana workforce, including student loan relief, affordable child care, paid family leave, and tax cuts for workers.

"Hoosiers don't want handouts. Hoosiers want a fair shot at getting ahead," said House Democratic Leader Phil GiaQuinta, D-Fort Wayne.

"Indiana prospers when we invest in our people, when we protect our freedoms, when we fight for fairness, when we build for the future."

Senate Democratic Leader Greg Taylor, D-Indianapolis, also pointed out polls show some 80% of Hoosiers support marijuana legalization on either a medical or recreational basis, and he declared it's long past time Indiana join many of its neighboring states and reform its cannabis laws.

"Common-sense legalization would bring in new revenue streams for the state and create jobs for farmers and small businesses," Taylor said. "It would also mean incalculable relief for thousands of veterans and chronically ill Hoosiers who would benefit from medical cannabis."

"It would also mean that no one goes to jail for something legal in 36 other states."

Hoosier lawmakers are set to continue meeting weekdays at the Statehouse until their scheduled adjournment deadline of March 14.

That date could change, however, if a COVID-19 outbreak or some other cause spurs the Legislature to alter its deadline like last year and remain eligible to consider enacting new laws all year long.