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Health Insurance & Affordable Care Act

New Patients' Rights Bill Gets Bipartisan Backing

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McCain, Bush's main Republican rival for the White House, reached out to Democrats to craft the proposal, beating the White House to the punch on this issue, which ranks near the top among voter concerns.

The delegation also included such longtime patients' rights advocates as Sen. Edward Kennedy, (D-Mass.). He told WebMD he was comfortable with the bill's compromise on the right to sue. "This makes sense in terms of still giving the assurances of accountability, ... I think the protections are quite clear," Kennedy said.

Democratic moderates, like Sens. John Edwards of North Carolina and Bob Graham of Florida, also played a key role in brokering the bill, and Republican centrists including Sens. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island also are on board.

In addition to the right to sue, the act would allow access to emergency and specialty care, as well as cover drugs not included in a patient's plan. HMO members also would be entitled to direct access to pediatricians and ob-gyn's without authorization. So-called "gag" orders that prevent doctors from discussing treatments not covered by the plan would be prohibited.

Proponents say that if adopted, the bill would create a speedy internal and external review process for medical claims. Some 160 million Americans with private health insurance would be covered, as opposed to some earlier versions that would limit the number protected to about one-third of that total.

Perhaps most importantly, the provisions of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, known as ERISA, which have protected health plans from lawsuits, would be lifted. "We are putting all managed care organizations on notice today. There's no longer going to be free rein to them," said Rep. John Dingell, (R-Mich.), who co-sponsored a similar measure with Rep. Charlie Norwood, (R-Ga.), last year.

However, Norwood was a no-show at the news conference unveiling the bill after he and Rep. Greg Ganske, (R-Iowa), met with top White House officials, including senior adviser Karl Rove, to describe the bipartisan plan. Norwood said in a statement, "This may very well be the bill that passes into law, and I intend to support it. ... I simply would like our new president to have the opportunity to provide some input."

Ganske said that during the 3-hour White House meeting, he was told to hold off. And according to Fleischer, the president plans to send a letter to the Hill this week on the issue of patient protections.

Backers of the congressional effort say their bill won't disrupt patient protection plans now in effect in many states, including Texas. "The White House is putting out principles of patient protection that are very similar to what President Bush outlined in his campaign book," Ganske said.

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