Norwood Pulls Support for Patients’ Rights Bill at Bush’s Request
Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) this morning introduced a "compromise" version of patients' rights legislation that extends the right to sue HMOs, but the AP/Las Vegas Sun reports that Rep. Charles Norwood (R-Ga.), who called the press conference and with Rep. John Dingell helped craft both the original bill that passed the House last year and the new "compromise" version, has "abruptly canceled his participation in the news conference" (AP/Las Vegas Sun, 2/6). Norwood aides say he will "withhold" his support "at least temporarily" to give the White House more time to review the legislation (Entous, Reuters/YahooNews, 2/6). Yesterday, White House senior political adviser Karl Rove met with GOP Reps. Greg Ganske (Iowa) and Norwood, the "prominent" Republican House supporters of patients' rights, to ask for "more time" for President Bush to develop his plan before "committing to support" the McCain-Kennedy bill (Vandehei, et al Wall Street Journal, 2/6). The Los Angeles Times reports that Rove "pressured" Norwood and Ganske to "hold off on pushing bill" (Rubin, Los Angeles Times, 2/6). Aides to Ganske, however, said he will attend the press conference alongside Kennedy, McCain and Dingell(Reuters, 2/6). Despite the Bush administration's pressure on Norwood to withhold support, White House spokesperson Scott McClellan said, "We're working with members of Congress to move forward on a patients' bill of rights in a bipartisan way. This is a top priority." Norwood spokesperson John Stone said that Norwood would "like to give the new administration more time. We're just going to hold off for right now. (Norwood's) overall goal is to pass a bill that will be signed into law." So far, 54 senators have "publicly" endorsed the bill and "another five or six" have "privately" indicated support. Supporters will need 60 votes to ensure the measure is filibuster-proof (Reuters/YahooNews.com, 2/6).
The bill would allow patients to seek damages in state courts, while also offering protections for employers (Ornstein, Dallas Morning News, 2/6). The bill, which McCain "hammered out" after weeks of negotiating with Democratic senators, is intended to break a "three-year impasse" over patients' rights. Under the proposal, a "wide variety" of rights are defined, including access to medical specialists and emergency care. In addition, patients would be able to sue HMOs that "improperly deny claims or cause injuries." The bill's lawsuit provisions establish how patients would seek redress in the court system. Disputes over the terms of contract would be heard in federal court, while issues of medical judgement and the need for "specific services" would go to state court, which often award larger damages (Pear, New York Times, 2/6). Since federal courts do not award punitive damages, the legislation does allow a judge or jury to award a "civil assessment" of up to $5 million. Less contentious provisions require health plans to detail for patients how the plan is run, how to pay for out of network emergency room visits, how to access specialists and how to take disputes to independent appeals panels (AP/Houston Chronicle, 2/5). In addition, employers who offer health plans could only be sued if they were "directly involved" in making a medical decision that resulted in injuries. The bill would extend these new rights to about 160 million Americans who are covered by employer-sponsored health plans or who purchase their own insurance. Finally, a provision that McCain successfully inserted into the legislation would require states to ensure their existing patients' rights laws are "equivalent to the federal version."
Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.) will join McCain and Kennedy in unveiling the legislation today, giving the measure more Republican support in the Senate, which last year passed a less comprehensive bill that did not include a right to sue (Los Angeles Times, 2/6). However, McCain's "eagerness" to develop the legislation with Democrats is not sitting well with GOP leaders in the Senate, who have "no desire to let ... McCain set their agenda" (New York Times, 2/6). In addition, President Bush "does [not] see eye to eye" with McCain on the legislation. Bush, who intended to spend this week lobbying for his $1.6 trillion tax cut proposal, will outline his patients' rights plan in a letter to Congress today. The Bush plan would "severely restrict" lawsuits and damage awards (Wall Street Journal, 2/6). In addition, the Bush plan is expected to mirror Texas law, which requires independent medical panels to decide if patients may pursue complaints in lawsuits (Los Angeles Times, 2/6).
Insurance associations and business organizations say the new McCain/Kennedy bill "does not solve" any of their objections over previous versions of patients' rights legislation. The Dallas Morning News reports that the industry "prefer[s]" legislation that allows patients to appeal treatment decisions to medical boards and does not include liability (Dallas Morning News, 2/6). Karen Ignagni, president of the American Association of Health Plans, said, "This legislation is a recipe for more litigation, more liability and higher costs" (New York Times, 2/6). She added, "You're looking at a web of bureaucracy and increased costs. It does more for the needs of trial lawyers than for patients" (Wall Street Journal, 2/6)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.