Los Angeles Times Says Compromise on Patients’ Rights Not Expected in 2002
Although the House and Senate both passed patients' rights bills last year, the Los Angeles Times reports that the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon have "pushed" the issue "so far afield that it might be hard to resurrect with any vigor" in 2002. Republicans and Democrats last year "were more optimistic than ever about ... passing [patients' rights] legislation" that President Bush would sign, but after the Sept. 11 attacks, the "pressure to resolve disagreements over the issue has dissipated -- and neither side has the incentive to budge," the Times reports (Ornstein, Los Angeles Times, 1/10). The House and Senate last summer passed patients' rights bills that differed on the extent of their right-to-sue provisions. The Senate bill (S 1052) would have allowed patients to sue HMOs in state court -- generally considered more hospitable to plaintiffs -- for denial of benefits or quality of care issues and in federal court for non-quality of care issues. It capped damages awarded in federal court at $5 million, but allowed state courts to award as much in damages as the state allows (California Healthline, 7/2/01).
The House bill (HR 2563) offered a narrower right to sue. It would have allowed patients to sue health plans in state court for non-economic damages of up to $1.5 million, and would have allowed courts to award patients up to $1.5 million in punitive damages, but only in cases where patients won complaints against health plans before an outside appeals panel and an HMO "still persist[ed] in refusing the care they need" (California Healthline, 8/3/01). The competing bills were headed for a conference committee in the days before the Sept. 11 attacks (California Healthline, 9/7/01). Harvard University health policy expert Robert Blendon called patients' rights a "dead issue" in 2002, adding, "When it's all said and done, it is a casualty of Sept. 11."
Lawmakers have debated patients' rights legislation for the past six years, but "something always happens to push" the "star-crossed" legislation "off track," the Times reports. Opponents of patients' rights legislation "attribute the bill's problems to fate." Greg Scandlen of the National Center for Policy Analysis said, "Maybe God is telling us something." However, Rep. Charlie Norwood (R-Ga.), a key supporter of patients' rights legislation in past years, vowed to "keep going" on the issue. "Man, I don't know what to think other than it's frustrating. Some days I throw things and other days I get a hold of myself," he said, adding, "Little old me is just going to be sitting here screaming about it. I can assure you (the Congress is) going to hear about it for 10 more years" (Los Angeles Times, 1/10).
Speaking yesterday at a press briefing on the managed care industry's 2002 agenda, American Association of Health Plans President and CEO Karen Ignagni said that "now is not the time" for lawmakers to pass patients' rights legislation, which she said would "impose new mandates on managed care." She added, "Congress has been having a health care debate without regard to affordability." She said that increases in health care costs and in the number of uninsured Americans will "make it more difficult" for Congress to pass a patients' rights bill this year (Fulton, CongressDaily, 1/9). According to Ignagni, AAHP polls "now show that voters are less interested in HMO reform than in the rising costs of health care and in keeping their insurance coverage" (Los Angeles Times, 1/10). Ignagni said that AAHP this year plans to "push" for patients' rights legislation that calls for independent review, rather than lawsuits, to resolve patient disputes with health plans (CongressDaily, 1/9). "We need to make sure that the left hand and the right hand are connected to the extent that Congress does not focus on legislation that will make problems worse," she said (Los Angeles Times, 1/10).This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.