HMO REFORM: GOP To Introduce Bill This Week
The Senate's Republican Healthcare Task Force announced Friday it will introduce a managed care reform bill in the Senate this week, "and will seek to change the political dynamics that surrounded the issue last year." CongressDaily reports that while the leadership introduced the GOP Senate bill last year simply to counter the Democratic proposal, "this year Republicans will move their task force bill through the appropriate committees for a full vetting." Republican aides said they hope this will allow the GOP to better portray its ideas to the public. Senate Majority Whip Don Nickles (R-OK) said, "It is our intention for this debate to move forward this year in a productive, deliberative fashion using the committee process. It is our hope that the Democrats will join us in a bipartisan effort."
Nickles said the GOP plan would expand medical savings accounts, allow 100% deductibility of health care costs for the self- employed and give greater flexibility to employees who utilize "flexible spending accounts." In lieu of Democrats' desire to allow patients to sue their health plans, the Republican bill will "propose an independent, external review procedure where patients could appeal care decisions to a doctor specializing in that area of medicine." Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) stressed that the plan allows states great leeway in crafting their own patients' rights laws. Noting that 44 states have already enacted "gag clauses," she said, "States have acted without any mandate or prod from Washington to protect consumers." CongressDaily reports that Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Chair Jim Jeffords (R-VT) will hold hearings this week on medical information and the appeals process (Morrissey, 1/15).
In response to the GOP announcement, two Democratic senators held a news conference during which they "naively sought to change the subject from the impeachment trial of President Clinton" to health care reform. The Chicago Tribune reports that 10 minutes before the impeachment trial was set to reconvene Friday, Sens. Tom Daschle (D-SD) and Edward Kennedy (D-MA) "attempted a modest public relations counterpunch" (Warren, 1/17). "We know you are dying to ask questions about the Patients' Bill of Rights, so we are making ourselves available," said a tongue-in-cheek Daschle. He expressed disappointment that the GOP bill is "so similar to the one Democrats objected to last year," with two-thirds of patients under HMOs still unable to appeal denials of care (Kornblut, Boston Globe, 1/16). To their dismay, upon opening the floor to questions, "[s]ix of seven questions were about the trial" (Tribune, 1/17). The Globe notes that the Senate will meet before the trial resumes today, at which time each party will "introduce their top 10 bills" and present agendas for one hour. Kennedy said, "I'm anxious to move ahead on the country's business, [but] until impeachment is settled, we're effectively stalled." Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT), however, responded that the Senate is "probably further ahead this Congress than we have been in the past, because we've been here all through January" (1/16).