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GOP lawmaker ready to support Democrats on patients' rights

Updated:

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Republican Rep. Charlie Norwood of Georgia has told colleagues he will support a Democrat-backed patients' bill of rights heading swiftly for Senate debate, The Associated Press has learned.

Norwood, who has supported broad rights for injured patients to sue their HMOs, said he would make an announcement on the issue Wednesday, but he would not elaborate.

The congressman has grown frustrated with months-long negotiations with a White House wary of potentially large jury awards against insurance companies and businesses that offer their workers health plans, a source familiar with the negotiations said Tuesday.

The key to Norwood's frustration is the Bush administration's resistance to allowing patients to pursue claims in state courts, which often award greater damages, the source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Norwood, a dentist by training, was the co-author of an expansive patients' rights bill that passed the House two years ago with support of 68 Republican colleagues. He held off supporting a similar plan this year to work with the new Republican president.

A prominent supporter of a Norwood-style patients' rights plan welcomed him back into the fold.

``His courageous action makes it less likely that President Bush will dare to veto this sensible bill,'' said Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., co-sponsor of the bipartisan Senate legislation. ``Everyone in Congress knows his leadership has made a huge difference on the issue.''

Senate Democrats hoped to start work as early as Thursday on the sweeping plan, which would provide new rules for what health maintenance organizations must cover and new rights for patients to sue in state or federal courts if they are denied needed care.

``This is a critical piece of legislation, and after five years it's long overdue,'' the new Senate majority leader, Tom Daschle, D-S.D., said Tuesday.

Senate leaders contend they have enough supporters to ward off attempts by conservative lawmakers to delay or kill the proposal.

The Senate bill's Republican co-sponsor welcomed Norwood's support but expressed a willingness to bridge gaps with the White House.

``The last thing I want to have is a bill that the president would veto on this issue,'' said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who had not talked to Norwood on Tuesday but said he was aware of his plan to sign on to the Democrat-backed bill.

The Bush administration supports new rules for what HMOs must cover, such as reasonable trips to the emergency room. But the White House wants to restrict lawsuits to federal courts and limit damages that injured parties could collect.

Presidential spokeswoman Claire Buchan said late Tuesday that Bush wants to receive a bill that reflects his principles and is ``reaching out to members on all sides of this issue.''

Insurers predicted Tuesday that Norwood's move would only lead to more gridlock in Congress.

``We know that increased liability will not resolve this issue,'' said Phil Blando, a spokesman for the American Association of Health Plans, which represents 1,000 HMOs and managed care plans insuring about 160 million people.

The group favors encouraging patients to take their complaints to independent reviewers instead of courts.

Focusing on such review, said Blando, ``holds greater promise in helping to move the discussions forward.''


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