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    The Patients' Rights Battle Rages Onward

    June 22, 2001 (Washington) -- Just like the humid Washington summer, the Capitol Hill battle over managed-care reform is hot and sticky.

    This week, a bipartisan "patients' bill of rights" began moving through the U.S. Senate, but the White House is taking a hard line against it.

    President Bush issued a formal veto threat of the legislation, sponsored by Sens. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.). The bill is endorsed by many physician groups, prominent unions, and consumer advocacy organizations.

    Under the Kennedy-McCain bill, patients could sue HMOs and other health plans in state or federal court if they are injured by medical decisions. Under a Bush-endorsed rival plan from Sens. John Breaux (D-La.) and Bill Frist, MD (R-Tenn.) patients could sue only in federal courts.

    Bush is maintaining that patients should have the right to sue only as a last resort. He opposes the Kennedy-McCain measure because he says that it allows patients to sue before they have exhausted an independent medical review process.

    According to official congressional cost estimates, the Kennedy-McCain bill would increase premiums more than the Breaux-Frist bill. That has led GOP senators, HMO executives, and the White House to assert that millions of Americans could lose coverage. They dismissively call it a "lawyer's bill of rights" or "lawyer's right to bill".

    Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer said that the Kennedy-McCain measure "goes way too far and hands too many favors over to trial lawyers, in a manner that would make healthcare premiums go up, in a manner that would deprive people of health insurance because of rising costs, in a manner that would hurt our healthcare system."

    But Democrats and their allies also have strong populist arguments. The consumer advocacy group Families USA, for example, just issued a report detailing soaring stock tallies and salaries for the nation's top HMO executives.

    "Clearly, the industry has a double standard about costs -- a very generous standard for its executives and a miserly one for America's consumers," said Ron Pollack, executive director of the group.

    And earlier this week, in the first vote to amend the Kennedy-McCain bill, Democrats prevailed against a Republican effort to attach an acceleration of tax deductibility for health insurance premiums for the self-employed.

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