PATIENTS’ BILL OF RIGHTS: Armey Predicts Spring Passage
Congress will pass a patients' bill of rights this spring and send it to President Clinton by April 23, House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas) announced yesterday at a health care forum (AP/Las Vegas Sun, 1/13). "We can't leave this issue uncompleted. We need to get it done," he said (USA Today, 1/14). By addressing patients' rights as soon as possible, Republicans can seize the "political high ground on a hot campaign issue" and "try to defuse [the issue] by acting on [it] early ... and passing more modest versions that are coupled with more traditional Republican elements" (Schmitt, New York Times, 1/14). Until now, Democrats have viewed the patients' rights debate as a "win-win" situation -- "[e]ither they get legislation they think is politically popular or they get an issue to use against Republicans in the elections," the Hartford Courant reports (MacDonald, 1/14). But the new GOP strategy could stymie any potential political momentum that Democrats may have gained from the issue during the election season. For that to happen, however, Senate and House Republicans on the joint conference committee, where versions of both chambers' patients' rights measures now sit, must first strike a compromise. Further, the New York Times reports that "given the depth of support for stronger patient protections, it is uncertain whether any compromise that emerges can muster enough support in the House, much less the Senate." Another potential stumbling block: The House has approved a right to sue HMOs, but Senate Republicans oppose the provision. For his part, Armey is proposing that the final bill restrict the right-to-sue provision to federal courts only, where juries are "less likely" to award huge damages. Armey said he also wants the final version to include a tax deduction for people paying at least 50% of their own health insurance premiums and provisions for the creation of medical savings accounts (New York Times, 1/14). "We need to pull the conference together" on this issue, Armey concluded (AP/Las Vegas Sun, 1/13).
HMOs Seek to Shift the Blame
Those hoping for a compromise also will have to deal with the latest opposition strategy of the managed care industry, which has latched onto a December Institute of Medicine report on medical errors as the newest "argument for why Congress should not complete work this year" on a patients' bill of rights. American Association of Health Plans President Karen Ignangi said the study "shows that patients' rights legislation is misdirected" toward HMOs, as the "real problems in health care are elsewhere" (Hartford Courant, 1/14).
Senators Push for Referral-Free OB/GYN Visits
Meanwhile, a bipartisan group of senators is pushing its own agenda into the fray. Sens. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), Charles Robb (D-Va.), Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), Patty Murray (D-Wash.), Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.), Bob Graham (D-Fla.), Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), Max Baucus (D-Mont.), Mary Landrieu (D-La.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) have written a letter to Sens. James Jeffords (R-Vt.), chair of the Sen. Committee on Health Education, Labor and Pensions, and Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), ranking member, urging them to "include language in the conference report which allows all women to see their obstetrician/gynecologist for all covered obstetric and gynecologic care" without first seeking a referral. Required referrals are not only "cumbersome for women, [they are] bad for their health," the senators write (Robb release, 1/12).