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LEGISLATION draws aggressive lobbying effort

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Health maintenance organizations, seeking to prevent patients from gaining new rights to sue them, are putting a new twist on their message, warning that such legislation will damage the economy.

Insurers and businesses are spending millions of dollars on a new campaign to oppose a patients' rights bill, which has become a Senate priority since Democrats took control last week.

The effort includes ads warning consumers that the legislation is ``bad for the economy. Bad for working people.''

Telephone calls offering a similar message will target business owners. E-mails sent to doctors nationwide will link to video of mock newscasts, produced by the HMO industry, warning that patients' rights legislation will empower trial lawyers to pursue frivolous lawsuits.

``We will spend whatever it takes,'' said Mark Merritt, chief strategist for the American Association of Health Plans.

Groups pressing for improved patients' rights _ labor unions, the Association of Trial Lawyers of America and the American Medical Association _ plan to focus on grass-roots organizing to influence lawmakers. The doctors' lobby already has held town hall-style meetings across the country.

The competing efforts could reach the level of lobbying that was credited with defeating the Clinton administration's health care plan in 1994. That campaign included pervasive ads about ``Harry and Louise,'' a fictional couple opposed to government-managed health care.

Merritt's group is against both plans introduced in the Senate to give patients more rights to sue insurers over treatment and coverage decisions. The group is planning its own ads and belongs to a coalition that is launching ads this week.

The ads are airing just days after Bush signed a major tax cut that he and his supporters portrayed as essential to avoiding a recession.

The insurers are also aiming a stark economic message at average Americans. They suggest fear of lawsuits will cause insurers to charge more for coverage. Employers, squeezed by rising premiums on one side and lawsuits on the other, will suffer, sending the economy into a tailspin. Or they may just scale back or drop coverage altogether.

The campaign aimed at businesses and doctors is refined a bit, warning that the bill sponsored by Sens. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., and John McCain, R-Ariz., would also let patients sue their employers and physicians over health coverage decisions.

Trial lawyers, the AMA and other patients' rights supporters accuse the HMOs of using scare tactics to stop the legislation.

``We think it has very reasonable protections for consumers who are lucky enough to have health insurance,'' said Judy Waxman of Families USA. ``It provides the same floor of protection for everybody, no matter where you live, what state you're in or who you work for.''

The Senate is considering two versions of the legislation. The Kennedy-McCain bill would give consumers broad power to sue managed-care plans; a competing measure sponsored by Sens. Bill Frist, R-Tenn., and John Breaux, D-La., and supported by President Bush would provide a more limited right to sue.

Patients' rights advocates and opponents alike are using increasingly sophisticated tactics, turning their lobbying efforts into mini-political campaigns.

``In the old days people tried to meet with one or two people on the Hill and cut deals over a few martinis in Washington,'' the HMOs' Merritt said.

``Now the real game is out in key congressional districts and using new technologies, such as Internet newscasts, mixed with old technologies, like television advertising and traditional grass roots, to get the job done,'' he said.

The Chamber of Commerce and the National Federation of Independent Business say they will focus on mobilizing their hundreds of thousands of members to contact lawmakers.

On the other side, doctors, lawyers and labor unions are honing a message that insurers are simply trying to escape the liability they should bear for any negligence in patient care.

The AMA already has spent more than $500,000 on ads over the past 18 months. ``Don't Let Big Insurance Ambush Patients' Rights,'' reads one newspaper ad, featuring two bandits ambushing a train.

The AMA plans to spend much less on ads in the next few weeks, instead focusing on mobilizing its 300,000 members to call their lawmakers.

``We intend to keep going to the media, going to the patients, to pressure Congress to pass a strong bill of rights,'' said Dr. Thomas Reardon of Portland, Ore., past president of the AMA.


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