Bush to Back ‘Limited’ Patients’ Rights Proposal
President Bush today will endorse a patients' bill of rights in which patients would have the right to sue their health plans but lawsuits and jury awards would be limited, USA Today reports. The president, in a speech to the American College of Cardiology in Orlando, will attempt to "boost [the] prospects" for patients' rights legislation proposed by Sens. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and John Breaux (D-La.), according to advisers (Welch/Keen, USA Today, 3/21). The senators' "Bipartisan Patients' Bill of Rights of 2001" would guarantee patients access to specialists, emergency care and hospital stays. Regarding lawsuits, the legislation would require patients to exhaust an independent external review process, unless the case proves "futile," before suing health plans in court. The bill would place a $500,000 cap on non-economic damages and allow unlimited economic damages. In addition, all lawsuits would be heard in federal court, which "generally" award smaller settlements than state courts.
This measure aligns in several ways with the "principles" that Bush outlined for a patients' bill of rights last month, when he stated that lawsuits should only go through federal court and that damages awarded by juries should be subject to "reasonable caps." The Breaux-Frist bill competes with a proposal from Sens. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), John Edwards (D-N.C.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) which offers more lenient right-to-sue provisions. Under this proposal, called the "Bipartisan Patient Protection Act of 2001 (S 283)," patients could sue HMOs in state court for denial of benefits or quality-of-care issues and in federal court for non-quality of care issues, such as violations of health plan contracts. The bill would cap civil assessments awarded in federal court at $5 million, but state courts could award as much in damages as state laws allow. Supporting the president in his opposition to the Kennedy-McCain-Edwards proposal, Republican congressional leaders indicated that they prefer the more moderate right-to-sue aspects of the Breaux-Frist proposal. Sen. Don Nickles (R-Okla.) said, "We don't want to do anything that will expand the number of uninsured." House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas) added, "The Democrats have always put the right to sue ahead of the right to review" (USA Today, 3/21).