July 31, 2001 (Washington) -- Not all insurance horror stories
deal with patients. At a Capitol Hill news conference Tuesday, representatives
of the small business community expressed their fears that a patients' bill of
rights could force them to increase premium costs for their employees or drop
"We volunteered to provide health coverage for employees.
We didn't volunteer to get sued," said Joe Corey who employs 225 people in
his four Italian restaurants. Corey is particularly concerned with the bill
that's already passed the Senate; it would provide HMO patients broad rights to
sue their health plan in state and federal court.
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With a vote on patients' rights now expected in the House on
Thursday, employer liability remains one of the major stumbling blocks to a
legislative compromise. Reports indicate that President Bush has come close to
a deal with Rep. Charlie Norwood (R-Ga.) who has been a key backer of a plan
favored by the Democrats which the President has threatened to veto, mainly
because of the question of excessive lawsuits.
Both the White House-backed plan and the one sponsored by
Democrats and moderate Republicans have a number of features in common,
including greater access to the emergency room and treatment by specialists,
and external review of treatment issues. Still to be determined, though, is the
contentious issue of when patients can sue their HMO for denial of care and
what the limits of those awards should be.
It appears that a final bill would keep larger employers who
self-insure and manage their plans out of state courts where they would face
the most potential liability. Meanwhile, the small business representatives
complain that a federal court "carve out" to protect large companies is
unfair to them.
Even though the major bills now contain a "dedicated
decision maker" that would assume liability in the event of legal action,
many businesses aren't convinced they would be protected. Rep. Ernest Fletcher
(R-Ky.) says the bigger question is liability itself, which would hit small
business people at the same time medical costs are going up.
"The thing that scares us the most is holding the employer
liable. We go through a middleman, or broker. We have absolutely nothing to do
with the decisions that are made for healthcare, and to sue us for it could be
devastating," says Bob Richard, who owns a small chain of convenience
stores based in Ohio.
A large volume of similar tales was presented at the event that
brought together key backers of the White House plan, including Fletcher. He
told reporters that he was now "95%" in sync with the tougher measure
written by Norwood and Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.). However, he still has some