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New Patients' Rights Bill Gets Bipartisan Backing

WebMD Health News

Feb. 6, 2001 (Washington) -- A coalition of Republican and Democratic lawmakers have given the patients' bill of rights a face-lift in hopes that it will finally make it through Congress after five years of trying. However, a number of opponents, including President George W. Bush, see some serious warts in the proposal introduced on Capitol Hill on Tuesday.

The biggest issue is a provision of the "Bipartisan Patient Act of 2001" that would allow patients to sue their health plan in state court for medical decisions, like denial of treatment, or in federal court for questions of coverage, such as eligibility for the plan. The damage cap would be a maximum of $5 million.

President Bush backed away from the proposal, even though it is modeled after the Texas law that he suggested could be a national model during his campaign. "We can't have a patients' bill of rights that encourages and invites all kind of lawsuits. The ultimate effect would be to run up the cost of business," Bush told The Associated Press. "I'm a little concerned about the size of the cap on punitive damages."

White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said the president is still committed to a patient protections bill, including the right to sue HMOs, within limits. "He also believes that it is important to have a patients' bill of rights, but not a lawyers' right to bill," Fleischer said.

Despite White House hesitations, the American Medical Association supports this latest proposal. "We are extremely pleased to see this effort go forward. ... We came within one vote of getting it in the last session of Congress. ... We are strongly supportive," Richard Corlin, MD, AMA president-elect, tells WebMD. "Patients deserve and need this kind of protection," he says. The AMA says HMOs have put profit before quality care.

However, the HMO lobby says the bill rests on the mistaken view that the courts are the best place to resolve healthcare disputes. "These lawsuits would lead to higher medical costs for consumers at a time when rising costs are already a topic of growing concern," said American Association of Health Plans President Karen Ignani in a prepared statement.

"I think that it's instructive to note that in the state of Texas, since their law has been passed, there have been a total of 10 -- 10 litigations," responded Sen. John McCain, (R-Ariz.).

Earlier Tuesday, a group of Republicans and Democrats presented their plan, which they suggested could be the prescription that would break legislative gridlock on the issue. "Our nation has been, if I may use the word, patiently waiting for many years -- and too many years. Congress has failed to pass a patients' bill of rights that would grant American families enrolled in HMOs the healthcare protections they deserve," said McCain, one of the bill's primary architects.

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