Meanwhile, patients can still sue plans in state court for malpractice claims or poor quality of care.
"What we've tried to do here is reach a middle ground. ... There's an emphasis on helping people before they get hurt as opposed to waiting until they suffer an irreparable injury and allowing them to sue," said Breaux.
However, at a news conference immediately after the one announcing the new bill, Sen. Ted Kennedy described it as "completely inadequate."
"This bill fails to provide the guarantees that all Americans will be covered, because it's riddled with loopholes," said Kennedy. He says if the measure passes, HMOs will still be able to decide who gets specialty care, and prescription drugs could be priced out of reach.
Kennedy also complained that the appeals process would be stacked in favor of HMOs since they would appoint the doctors who hear the appeals, and patients would have to go through legal gymnastics to get their case into court.
"It's a huge hole in their bill, that they don't have a truly independent external review process," said Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.).
As to the president's threat to veto McCain-Kennedy if it got to his desk, Kennedy responded, "I'm convinced that whatever we pass here the president will sign." He claims to have a majority of senators on his bill.
Others on Capitol Hill, like Rep. Charlie Norwood (R-Ga.), who authored a tougher bill of rights measure that passed the House last year, also vowed to fight the new bipartisan measure.
Meanwhile, interest groups like the powerful American Medical Association reacted coolly to the proposal, and the American Association of Health Plans, which represents the major HMOs, expressed "serious concerns" about the new effort, which the HMO lobby said could be a "setback for efforts to improve the quality of health care for consumers."
"When you don't have the AMA and the trial lawyers on, and the health plans on, we're right in the middle, and probably right where we want to be," Frist tells WebMD.