Bush Backs House GOP Patients’ Rights Legislation
With the Senate debating the patients' rights bill (S 283) sponsored by Sens. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), John McCain (R-Ariz.) and John Edwards (D-N.C.), President Bush, who has threatened to veto the legislation, yesterday endorsed a rival measure drafted by House Republican leaders, the Philadelphia Inquirer reports (Koszczuk/Hutcheson, Philadelphia Inquirer, 6/28). Under the House GOP measure, written by Reps. Ernie Fletcher (R-Ky.), Nancy Johnson (R-Conn.) and Collin Peterson (D-Minn.), patients would have to exhaust an independent medical review process before suing health plans in state court. The legislation would cap economic damages at $500,000 (Archibald, Washington Times, 6/28). The Kennedy-McCain-Edwards bill would allow patients to sue HMOs in state court for denial of benefits or quality of care issues and in federal court for non-quality of care issues. In addition, the bill would cap damages awarded in federal court at $5 million, but state courts could award as much money in damages as the state allows. The New York Times reports that Bush's decision to back a bill that allows patients to sue in state court represents a "concession" (Pear, New York Times, 6/28). Still, Bush "reiterated" his threat to veto Kennedy-McCain-Edwards, which he said would boost the cost of health insurance and could prompt employers to drop coverage for employees (Miller, Los Angeles Times, 6/28).
Hoping to "blunt" the Kennedy-McCain-Edwards bill, Bush has begun a "strategy of aggressively coaxing" House Republicans to back the Fletcher-Johnson-Peterson bill over the House version of the Kennedy-McCain-Edwards bill (HR 526), sponsored by Reps. Charlie Norwood (R-Ga.), John Dingell (D-Mich.) and Greg Ganske (R-Iowa) (Goldstein/Dewar, Washington Post, 6/28). Bush also hopes to avoid a "politically damaging veto" of Kennedy-McCain-Edwards by "throwing his weight behind" the Fletcher-Johnson-Peterson bill, Newsday reports (Fireman/Barfield, Newsday, 6/28). Bush yesterday convened a White House gathering of 17 Republican lawmakers and a number of "administration heavyweights," to a meeting that "seemed designed mainly to increase pressure on Republicans" to support the Fletcher bill, CongressDaily/AM reports. Rep. Rob Portman (R-Ill.) said that the House would likely address the bill within two weeks after the July 4 recess and predicted a floor vote before the August recess. He added that "momentum was headed" for the House leadership bill, which would allow Republicans to "tell voters they supported" a patients' rights bill (Koffler, CongressDaily/AM, 6/28). Democrats predicted that the House would pass the Norwood-Dingell-Ganske bill.
Meanwhile, in the Senate yesterday, Democrats "fended off" several GOP amendments to McCain-Kennedy-Edwards (Hosler, Baltimore Sun, 6/28). The Senate voted 53-45 against an amendment sponsored by Sen. Wayne Allard (R-Colo.) that would have exempted businesses with 50 or fewer employees from health care-related lawsuits by their workers. The Senate also rejected, on a 54-45 vote, an amendment sponsored by Sens. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) and Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) that would have prevented patients from suing HMOs over treatments "specifically excluded" in contracts (Los Angeles Times, 6/28). By defeating the amendments, Democrats "showed once again they have the strength" to pass patients' rights legislation, AP/Nando Times reports (McQueen, AP/Nando Times, 6/28). Today, the Senate will likely vote on an amendment sponsored by Nelson and Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) that would allow states to "keep their own laws on the books -- even if those laws include fewer elements than the federal law would require for health plans states cannot regulate" (Rovner/Fulton, CongressDaily/AM, 6/28). Yesterday, Senators reached an agreement on an amendment sponsored by Sen. John Breaux (D-La.) that would allow states to enforce patients' rights laws in "substantial compliance" with a federal statute, a compromise from the Kennedy-McCain-Edwards bill's requirement that states enforce laws in a "substantially equivalent" manner to the federal law (Los Angeles Times, 6/28).