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Patient Rights and Genetic Discrimination Get Senate Votes

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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.

Meanwhile, the health plan industry announced yesterday that over 710,000 Medicare beneficiaries will lose their HMO coverage next year. The American Association of Health Plans released a survey reporting that many key plans are withdrawing from the Medicare+Choice market next January.

Aetna U.S. Healthcare alone will leave 355,000 seniors stranded in 11 states, for example, while Humana will pull out of six states, affecting 84,000 beneficiaries.

About 6.5 million of about 38 million total Medicare beneficiaries chose managed care this year.

"The only good news in this story is that the original Medicare program is still there," said Joe Baker, executive vice president of the Medicare Rights Center, a patient advocacy group. "The [HMO] program is still viable in some areas," he said. But seniors should "keep their ear to the ground," he tells WebMD.

Health plans say that not only are they are not being paid enough by Medicare, but they also suffer under too many regulations.

The Health Care Financing Administration notes that plans receive a 2% minimum payment increase each year, even if overall Medicare spending is flat or declines.

The Medicare+Choice system was enacted into law in 1997 but has had a rocky history. Last year, 327,000 seniors lost their Medicare HMOs. In 1998, 407,000 were stranded from their plan. The high new number may set off alarm bells among Washington policymakers that the market is not working.

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