Patient Rights and Genetic Discrimination Get Senate Votes
June 30, 2000 (Washington) -- A flurry of health news happened in a hurry here Thursday as Congress closed in on its Fourth of July holiday.
With no end in sight, politics escalated on the "patients' bill of rights" as Senate Republicans staged a vote on an updated GOP version of managed care patient protections. Added as a surprise amendment to a health appropriations bill, the Republican bill passed 51 to 47. The GOP bill would permit a limited right to sue health plans but would only apply to Americans whose health insurance coverage is not subject to state regulations.
Four Republicans broke ranks to join Democrats on the vote against the plan. Several weeks ago, Senate Democrats picked up the same four votes but lost in a 51 to 48 tally to gain approval of a bill that had already cleared the House of Representatives. The House measure establishes a strong right to sue and would apply to every American with health insurance.
While yesterday's vote did little to settle the badly gridlocked issue, it put final nails in the coffin of official House/Senate "conference committee" negotiations on a final bill. "There is no way in the world that bill is ever going to come out of conference," said Sen. Don Nickles (R-Okla.), chair of that committee.
Meanwhile, a majority of House lawmakers is unlikely to approve the new Senate Republican measure. Close to 20 House Republicans rallied yesterday to assert that the bill would fail to pass muster. "Nobody is going to get tricked," said Rep. Charlie Norwood (R-Ga.), a key author of the stronger House legislation. "We're not going to get rolled on this," he said.
In another partisan health maneuver involving the health appropriations bill, Senate Republicans approved an amendment that would bar insurance firms from collecting genetic information and denying coverage or setting premiums based on genetic test information.
The Senate rejected a broader Democratic measure that would bar employers from using genetic information for hiring and salary decisions and allow individuals to sue on the grounds of genetic discrimination.
The House has not yet passed language on the genetic issue.
Highlighting the growing importance of genetic tests, government and private researchers made international news this week by announcing that they had completed a rough draft of the entire human genetic map, also known as the human genome.
Senate Republicans argued that they wanted to study the complexities of the issue before legislating controls that may be unnecessary. And Rep. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) said the Democratic bill would create an instant lawsuit "jackpot" for lawyers. The Senate has planned committee hearings on genetic discrimination and testing in July.
For their part, Senate Democrats said they would reoffer their amendment later this year.