WASHINGTON (AP) _ Declaring that families have been left in the waiting room by health maintenance organizations, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, urged passage of a patients' rights bill he said would ensure quality health care.
The legislation guarantees patients access to emergency treatment, medical specialists and other types of care. President Bush and congressional Republicans argue it would also encourage unnecessary lawsuits and drive up the cost of health insurance.
But in the Democrats' weekly radio address aired Saturday, Harkin said: ``We want to hold HMOs accountable when they unfairly deny you needed medical care.''
He said HMOs and foreign diplomats are the only two groups with total immunity from lawsuits.
The senator cited what he called true-life examples of HMO practices that denied treatment and even caused death.
``It is past time that we stood up for ... millions of other Americans who have been harmed when an HMO refuses to live up to their word,'' he said.
HMOs have forced patients to visit an emergency room miles away even when there is one close by, Harkin said.
``Our patients' bill of rights would give you the right to go to the nearest medical facility without having to ask your HMO for permission,'' he said. ``You shouldn't have to call your HMO before you dial 911.''
On Friday, Republicans proposed giving employers ironclad protection from lawsuits under patients' rights legislation, while Democrats said they were willing to limit, if not eliminate, liability.
The measure in the Senate would give patients the right to sue HMOs for denial of care in federal or state courts, and to seek punitive damages _ an issue sparking much of the controversy surrounding the legislation.
One provision would permit patients to sue before completion of an appeal of an adverse HMO decision on medical treatment.