Bush Offers More Flexibility on Damages in Patients’ Rights Bill
The White House, hoping to "strike a deal" on a patients' rights bill, has "signaled greater flexibility" on proposed caps that would limit the amount of damages that plaintiffs could receive in lawsuits against health plans, the Wall Street Journal reports. White House officials said President Bush, who in the past has "insisted on a strict across-the-board cap" in a patients' rights bill, might now consider a "flexible cap reflecting the age of an injured party" that would provide "bigger awards" to younger plaintiffs who might live longer with pain. The president last year proposed a $500,000 cap on pain and suffering damages in lawsuits against health plans and later agreed to raise the cap to $1.5 million as part of a compromise last August to "stave off defeat" on a patients' rights bill passed in the House. The Journal reports that Bush "could stand pat" behind the House bill, but the "lure of reaching a final compromise on patients' rights attracts him." However, Bush will have to reach an agreement with the Democratic-controlled Senate, which passed a patients' rights bill last June that would not cap economic or non-economic damages. "Intermittent staff talks" between the Bush administration and Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), who co-sponsored the Senate bill, began last year. Anne Phelps, a top White House health aide, has met with David Nexon, Kennedy's top health aide, and Kennedy has "talked several times directly" about the issue with Nicholas Calio, the chief White House lobbyist. Kennedy would "have to sell an agreement to fellow Democrats," the Journal reports. However, according to the Journal, "he and the president -- heirs to wealth and political tradition -- seem to almost relish the discomfort they can cause followers by negotiating." Kennedy said, "We've had discussions with the White House about a number of items. I'm interested in getting a patients' bill of rights, hopefully this year" (Rogers, Wall Street Journal, 1/30).
Meanwhile, Keith Koffler writes in his CongressDaily/AM "Outside Influences" column that Republican lobbyists fear the Bush administration's discussions with Kennedy may "sink" their "multimillion-dollar campaign" to defeat patients' rights legislation. Koffler writes that "some GOP lobbyists are convinced" that without the negotiations "they could deep-six the legislation." Because of the economic recession, business officials say that voters "are far more worried about keeping their jobs and maintaining their health insurance than about suing HMOs," which would increase health care costs that "already are on the rise," Koffler writes. He also points out that the "public is not exactly clamoring for patients' rights." According to Koffler, only 2% called the issue a "top priority" in a December NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, and only 7% considered patients' rights legislation their "main [health] concern" in a Kaiser Family Foundation/Harvard School of Public Health poll conducted last summer. However, Koffler writes that Bush "genuinely wants to sign a patients' bill of rights" and hopes to boost public opinion for the Republican Party, which "still lags far behind Democrats on health care," and "show he can do something other than crush terrorists this year." As a result, Koffler writes that Republican lobbyists "are keeping their fingers crossed" and "banking" on Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) to "rein Kennedy in, keep Bush from signing a bill and maintain the patients' bill of rights as a cudgel with which to whack Republicans." However, Koffler points out that according to one Democratic strategist, "with a deal so close, Daschle will not stand in the way" (Koffler, CongressDaily/AM, 1/30).