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BUSH risks losing moderates as Senate heads for HMO debate


WASHINGTON (AP) _ A Republican House member who has tried to bridge the gap between the White House and Senate leaders on HMO reform is showing signs of fatigue.

Rep. Charlie Norwood, R-Ga., a dentist who has spent six years championing patients' rights to sue their health plans, said Thursday he could possibly back a bipartisan plan being launched by the newly Democratic Senate _ if no other compromise can be reached.

``We're not over, but it's getting very much toward the end,'' Norwood said. ``It's hard for me to give up because we're so close.''

At issue is how to help Americans sue their health plans over denied medical care.

President Bush and GOP conservatives want to keep HMO suits in federal courts, and limit damages for pain and suffering to $500,000.

Meanwhile, a plan that appears headed for the Senate floor next week, pushed by Sens. Edward Kennedy and John McCain, R-Ariz., would let patients take their cases to federal or state courts, and win up to $5 million in damages.

Supporters like Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., and Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., joined the pair in a big launch soon after Bush took office.

Norwood, who has sponsored past bills to allow state suits and larger awards, held off endorsements and pledged to work with the White House on a compromise.

On Thursday, talks continued but the Bush camp still objected to state lawsuits, damages for pain and suffering beyond $500,000 and letting patients sue without exhausting other reviews of their cases.

``They (White House officials) made a suggestion or two, and I'm checking around to see if I can get any support for their suggestions,'' Norwood said. ``I'm listening.''

Norwood's support of Kennedy, which would essentially mean cosponsoring a companion bill in the House with Dingell, would increase the chances that Congress could send President Bush patients' rights legislation he's already vowed to veto.

``Here is the leader of a bill with a strong right to sue which had the backing of 30 of his Republican colleagues,'' said Edward F. Howard, who directs the Alliance for Health Reform, a nonpartisan research group in Washington. ``If he indeed cuts off dialogue with the White House, that may signal a much stronger bill is going to emerge in the House.''

Norwood and Dingell crafted the bipartisan measure that passed the House in 1999. The measure never became law because no compromise could be reached with a Senate bill in which there were no new suits allowed.

Health plans and business groups admit worry over the new momentum. They plan ad or lobbying campaigns to warn of escalating health care premiums if patients are given broad rights to sue insurers, doctors or even the employers that provide health insurance benefits.

They contend that lawmakers are not telling constituents that more suits and higher costs could reduce the number of people able to get health insurance in the first place.

``This is a bait and switch,'' said Karen Ignagni, president of the American Association of Health Plans, which represents HMOs. ``They are talking patients protections but people are being put in jeopardy here.''

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