Is the Patients’ Rights Debate A ‘Diversion’ From Larger Problems?
While many lawmakers and health analysts view last week's Senate passage of patients' rights legislation as a significant step for helping Americans in health plans, many say that the prolonged debate surrounding this issue has served as a distraction from the more important and "complicated" problems of adding a prescription drug benefit to Medicare and reducing the ranks of the uninsured, the New York Times reports. A "broad consensus among elected officials, consumers and health care professionals" agreed that a patients' rights bill "was a necessary corrective to 10 years of change in the marketplace," and the public debate has "had consequences," such as increased industry efforts to provide consumers more choice and flexibility in health plans, the Times reports. But given that it took five years of debate on the federal level to get this far, Princeton University health economist Uwe Reinhardt said, "I think it was a ridiculous diversion of political energy that distracts from the truly shocking problems of the American health care system -- the uninsured, the elderly without drugs and the medical error problem."
Heritage Foundation analyst Stuart Butler described the Senate-passed bill as "almost completely irrelevant."
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The Times reports that patients' rights has preceded a Medicare drug benefit and insurance expansion because, "since the collapse" of the 1994 Clinton universal health plan, "few politicians have had the stomach for tackling more than one health care problem at a time." Moreover, the debate surrounding a Medicare drug benefit is likely to be even more contentious than the one on patients' rights, as a benefit will likely cost billions of dollars and "touches on some of the deepest divisions between the parties," including whether Medicare should move towards privatization. And while the "partisan struggle will be rough enough," the pharmaceutical industry -- fearing that a direct Medicare drug benefit will lead to price controls -- is likely to be as "formidable" a opponent to such a measure as insurers have been to a patients' bill of rights. As for the uninsured, Democrats are looking to expand the CHIP program and President Bush has proposed tax credits to help people buy insurance. But Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) "acknowledged" that any proposal under consideration will only tackle the problem on an incremental scale. "We're relegated to that for now," he said (Toner, New York Times, 7/2).