Patients' rights bill gets boost from Republican

Posted: Wednesday, June 13, 2001

WASHINGTON -- Patients' bill of rights legislation gained momentum Tuesday with a key House Republican on the verge of endorsing a Democrat-backed bill.

Rep. Charlie Norwood, R-Ga., planned to announce Wednesday that he would sign on to a bill that mirrors Senate Democrats' plan and is opposed by President Bush, said a source familiar with Norwood's discussions with the White House.

Norwood had been negotiating with the White House for a compromise on the extent of lawsuits that patients should be allowed to file against their HMOs. Norwood, a dentist by training, grew frustrated with White House resistance to allowing patients to pursue claims in state courts, the source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

In recent months, Norwood had hoped to reach a compromise with conservatives wary of potentially large jury awards against insurance companies -- and against the businesses that offer their workers health plans.

Norwood was the author of an expansive patients' rights bill that passed the House two years ago with support of 68 Republican colleagues. On Tuesday, Norwood was telling such supporters of his planned announcement.

''Everyone in Congress knows his leadership has made a huge difference on the issue,'' said Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., a co-sponsor of the plan that Senate Democrats plan to introduce. ''His courageous action makes it less likely that President Bush will dare to veto this sensible bill.''

Senate Democrats hoped to start work as early as Thursday on the sweeping plan, which would provide new rules for what health maintenance organizations must cover and new rights for patients to sue in state or federal courts if they are denied needed care.

''This is a critical piece of legislation, and after five years it's long overdue,'' Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle said Tuesday.

Leaders contend they have enough supporters to ward off attempts by conservative lawmakers to delay or kill the proposal.

The Senate bill's Republican co-sponsor welcomed Norwood's support but expressed a willingness to bridge gaps with the White House.

''The last thing I want to have is a bill that the president would veto on this issue,'' said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who had not talked to Norwood on Tuesday but said he was aware of his plan to sign on to the Democratic bill.

The Bush administration supports new rules for what HMOs must cover, such as reasonable trips to the emergency. But the White House wants to restrict lawsuits to federal courts and limit damages injured parties could collect.

President Bush worries that lawsuits could scare insurers into raising premiums or abandoning workers altogether.

Business executives who agree with Bush injected the nation's 43 million uninsured Americans into the debate Tuesday. They started running newspaper ads and television spots, many trying to pressure moderate Democrats into abandoning their leaders on the issue.

''Something's wrong when a bill that should protect the people of Georgia may actually hurt,'' says one print ad that claims that 35,000 Georgians would lose their insurance. The ad asks voters to call Zell Miller and Max Cleland, a pair of Senate Democrats who could vote for the patients' rights bill.

''Voters understand that you can't sue your way to better health care,'' said Dan Danner, chairman of the Health Benefits Coalition, which represents 3 million employers who pay for their employees' health coverage.

The business groups' message could hit home for some policy-makers, who are grappling with how to help 43 million Americans afford health coverage.

Concern is rising with reports that more employers, the most common providers of health insurance, are cutting back on the benefit as the economy slows.

''Making employer-sponsored health coverage more affordable and more accessible makes the most sense,'' said Mary Grealy, president of the Health Care Leadership Council. The health executives group would rather see Congress focus on tax credits to help the uninsured.

Their ad campaign calls for Congress to help families pay for policies, which could cost at least $2,000 a year for a family of three.


Associated Press writer Jeffrey McMurray contributed to this article.

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