‘Partisan Struggle’ Likely in House Patients’ Rights Debate
Lawmakers in the House will likely face a "searing partisan struggle" over patients' rights legislation "as soon as this week," the Los Angeles Times reports. The issue's future "hinge[s]" on the "readiness" of GOP moderates to "flout the will" of Republican leaders, and on President Bush, who has threatened to veto the patients' rights bill (S 1052) passed in the Senate last month. Bush has "attacked" the Senate bill, sponsored by Sens. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), John McCain (R-Ariz.) and John Edwards (D-N.C.), saying that the measure would "trigger an avalanche of lawsuits" against health insurers and "drive up" the cost of premiums (Miller, Los Angeles Times, 7/15). Under the bill, 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. The legislation would cap damages awarded in federal court at $5 million, but state courts could award as much in damages as the state allows. During his weekly radio address Saturday, Bush said, "I hope to sign a [patients' rights] bill that gets people help when they need it, not a bill adding hundreds of dollars to the high premiums they already pay." Still, the Times reports that Bush "may be hard-pressed to follow through" on his veto threat, pointing out that polls "repeatedly show a great deal of public support" for patients' rights legislation.
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In the House, Reps. Charlie Norwood (R-Ga.), John Dingell (D-Mich.) and Greg Ganske (R-Iowa) have sponsored a bill (HR 526) similar to the Senate bill, but House GOP leaders have drafted rival legislation "designed to crack the coalition supporting the more sweeping [Norwood-Dingell-Ganske] measure" (Los Angeles Times, 7/15). The House leadership bill (HR 2315), sponsored by Rep. Ernie Fletcher (R-Ky.), would allow patients to sue health plans in federal court for quality of care issues and non-quality of care issues, such as those involving violations of their health plan's contract. Patients could only sue in state court in cases where health plans refused to abide by decisions made by outside appeals panels. The bill would cap non-economic damages in federal court at $500,000, but state courts could award as much money in damages as the state allows. The bill would prohibit punitive damages. The New Orleans Times-Picayune reports that the "fate" of patients' rights legislation in the House rests on 18 Republicans who, in 1999, voted for legislation similar to this year's Norwood-Dingell-Ganske measure. House GOP leaders have lobbied the "renegade members," and Bush has "urged them to return to the fold," staging "high-profile" meetings last week to "build momentum" for the Fletcher bill (Walsh, New Orleans Times-Picayune, 7/16). House leaders said that they "remain confident" that the Fletcher bill will pass (Los Angeles Times, 7/16). But Norwood spokesperson John Stone, referring to the Norwood-Dingell-Ganske bill, said, "We have the votes to pass it, more than enough" (New Orleans Times-Picayune, 7/16).