Senate Dems Beat GOP Amendment Challenge to Patients’ Rights Bill
The Senate voted 52-45 yesterday to block a Republican amendment that "threatened to derail" patients' rights bill favored by Democrats, the Los Angeles Times reports (Los Angeles Times, 6/22). The legislation (S 283), sponsored by Sens. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), John McCain (R-Ariz.) and John Edwards (D-N.C.), would allow patients to sue HMOs in state court for denial of benefits or quality of care issues and in federal court for non-quality of care issues. In addition, it would cap damages awarded in federal court at $5 million, but state courts could award as much money in damages as the state. Under the amendment, sponsored by Sens. Tim Hutchinson (R-Ark.) and Christopher Bond (R-Mo.), small businesses and self-employed individuals would have been able to deduct the full cost of health insurance from their income taxes, beginning in 2002 (Miller, Los Angeles Times, 6/22). Existing tax law allows small businesses and the self-employed to deduct 60% of health care costs, but the figure will rise to 100% in 2003 (Pear/Toner, New York Times, 6/22). While the amendment has "broad support" in the Senate, Democrats "closed ranks" to defeat the GOP provision, maintaining that the amendment "could have scuttled the patients' rights legislation on a technicality" -- a constitutional requirement that tax measures originate in the House (Los Angeles Times, 6/22).
Democrats said Republicans proposed the amendment in order to "derail" the bill by giving House Republicans a "procedural reason to reject" the Kennedy-McCain-Edwards measure (New York Times, 6/22). "They want to kill (the patients' right bill) with kindness, the kindness of a tax break," Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) said (Malone, Cox News Service/Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 6/22). He added, "They know if they can put a tax amendment on this bill, it's over" (Rovner et al., CongressDaily/AM, 6/22). Senate Republicans called the amendment "imperative," maintaining that the bill would "tend to increase the number of people" without health insurance (New York Times, 6/22). "This is one small step and a very ... significant step in turning back the direction of this legislation, which is to increase the number of uninsured," Hutchinson said (CongressDaily/AM, 6/22). In yesterday's vote, three Republicans -- Sens. Lincoln Chafee (R.I.), Charles Grassley (Iowa) and McCain -- joined 49 Democrats to "beat back" the amendment (New York Times, 6/22). Sens. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), Zell Miller (D-Ga.) and Jim Jeffords (I-Vt.) abstained.
Meanwhile, President Bush yesterday issued a veto threat -- "this time in writing" -- promising to reject Kennedy-McCain-Edwards "unless significant changes are made" (Los Angeles Times, 6/22). The White House said that the bill would prompt an "explosive growth" of lawsuits and increase health insurance premiums, forcing many employers to drop coverage for employees. Bush said that the legislation "could cause at least four to six million Americans to lose health coverage" (New York Times, 6/22). The "strongly worded" three-page statement "surprised" Senate Democrats and "set the stage for a showdown." Democrats had predicted that Bush would sign the bill "rather than risk a political backlash" (Welch, USA Today, 6/22). Kennedy called Bush's statement a "distortion and misrepresentation" of the bill that "could have been written by the HMO industry itself" (Dewar, Washington Post, 6/22). "The president should stand with [patients], and not with HMOs and insurance companies," he added (Koszezuk, Philadelphia Inquirer, 6/22). Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) also "expressed disappointment" with the veto threat. "It doesn't serve anyone's purpose to threaten vetoes right now," he said (Archibald, Washington Times, 6/22). However, Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) "praised" the White House for "stepping up its attack" on the bill, adding that Bush "is making it clear that there are going to be parameters" (Los Angeles Times, 6/22).