Party Shift to Alter Health Policy Terrain
After Sen. James Jeffords (I-Vt.) "upended the political status quo" by leaving the Republican Party to become an independent yesterday, Senate Democrats "moved quickly" to "map out a legislative agenda," which will likely include a patients' bill of rights and a prescription drug benefit under Medicare, the New York Times reports. Democrats will assume control of the Senate -- now divided among 50 Democrats, 49 Republicans and one Independent --after Congress passes President Bush's proposed tax cut or on June 5, whichever comes later. In the new alignment, Democrats will assume the chairmanships of all committees and will control the legislative calendar and the legislative agenda (Seelye/Clymer, New York Times, 5/25). In most committees, the chairmanships will likely transfer to the ranking Democrat (Lancaster/Dewar Washington Post, 5/25). The Christian Science Monitor reports that the Democrats' "rise to power" in the Senate "means at least this: There's a new agenda in town" (Grier/Chaddock, Christian Science Monitor, 5/25). "There's a new sheriff in town," Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) said (Hook, Los Angeles Times, 5/25). Still, Democrats admitted that their new majority "was so precarious that they would not be able to will their agenda into place." Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), who will likely become Senate majority leader, said, "What does not change with this new balance of power is the need for principled compromise. This is still one of the most closely divided Senates in all of our history" (Seelye/Clymer, New York Times, 5/25). Explaining his decision, Jeffords said, "Looking ahead, I can see more and more instances where I'll disagree with the president on very fundamental issues -- the issues of choice ... and host of other issues, large and small," including some health-related concerns (Boyer, Washington Times, 5/25).
Democrats "made plain" yesterday that they would "move quickly to put their stamp on the policy debate," announcing plans to bring a "long-stalled" patients' rights bill (S 283), sponsored by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and John Edwards (D-N.C.) (Hook, Los Angeles Times, 5/25). 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, such as violations of their health plan's contract. The legislation would cap damages awarded in federal court at $5 million, but state courts could award as much money in damages as the state allows. Daschle promised "quick action" on the bill, after passing education legislation (Brownstein, Los Angeles Times, 5/25). "We'll complete that [education] bill. The second bill will be the patients' bill of rights," he said (Kuhnhenn, Philadelphia Inquirer, 5/25). Harkin said, "I think the first bill we're going to do is patient bill of rights" (AP/Richmond Times Dispatch, 5/25). According to Sen. Robert Torricelli (D-N.J.), "The entire prospect for a patients' bill of rights has just advanced enormously" (Burger, New York Daily News, 5/25).
Still, CongressDaily/AM reports that Jeffords' decision to leave the Republican party will likely have a "marginal impact" on patients' rights legislation. "Having Democrats in charge of the floor schedule will make it easier for them to bring" the legislation to the floor, but "they still don't have 60 votes and they don't have 67 votes," Ron Pollack of Families USA, said, referring to the numbers required to defeat a filibuster and override the veto President Bush has "promised." Opponents of the bill added that the "situation is unlikely to change much," despite Jeffords' move. "It will still be a very, very closely divided Senate," Phil Blando of the American Association of Health Plans said, adding, "It's clear any effort to move legislation forward ... will require a bipartisan approach" (Rovner, CongressDaily/AM, 5/25). However, the AP/Nando Times reports that although the McCain-Kennedy-Edwards bill "has enough support to avert a filibuster" and other opponents' delays, "there are no plans to change it to appeal to foes" (McQueen, AP/Nando Times, 5/25).
In addition to managed care reform, Democrats hope to "push sooner" on a prescription drug benefit under Medicare (Hook, Los Angeles Times, 5/25). Kennedy, "poised" to replace Jeffords as chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, said that a prescription drug benefit is "in play now" (Earle/Mitchell, CongressDaily/AM, 5/25).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.