WASHINGTON (AP) _ President Bush on Friday offered his rivals on patients' rights legislation a way to move some lawsuits against HMOs into state courts. Negotiators planned to spend the weekend pondering how the plan could work.
Bush, who had intensified his Capitol Hill lobbying after losing party moderates' support on a more-limited bill, presented the state plan to Rep. Charlie Norwood, R-Ga., the chief bargainer for the Bush rivals.
The Bush compromise would essentially steer HMO cases to federal courts, but allow some suits to be heard in state courts _ particularly if they apply to the local medical malpractice laws, sources said.
Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer said he was not going to give a ``play-by-play on any of the negotiations.''
``The discussions that are under way right now are what you would expect at the end of a legislative issue that is very serious and is approaching, it's possible, a vote sometime soon,'' Fleischer said.
Some Democrats were still unhappy with the offer.
Among the complaints is that the White House wants to create a ``super-shield'' for the millions of employers who provide employee health plans. Under the reported Bush proposal, according to sources familiar with it, employers would be liable only for federal laws governing contract disputes _ even if they instructed or pressured a health plan into making a medical decision to deny a patient a needed test, medicine or operation.
Mike Briggs, a spokesman for Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., said Edwards found the talks ``positive.''
A bipartisan group, among them Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., wants the president to sign a sweeping patients' bill of rights that has been more than seven years in the making.
``We're, obviously, more than willing to look at more suggestions,'' said Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, who last month pushed a version of the bill through the Democratic-led Senate. ``We've given and we've continued to try to find ways to seek common ground here. I don't know how much more there is to give and still keep the principles of the bill. ...''
That version of the bill, favored mostly by Democrats, would expand the medical treatments health plans must offer their patients _ and more controversially, give wronged patients access to federal or state courts and potential jury awards.
GOP leaders have resisted attempts to push cases into state court. A 1974 federal pensions and benefits law confines most cases against HMOs and other employer-sponsored health plans to federal court.
``There's room for flexibility on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue,'' said Fleischer, referring to the street that connects the Capitol to the White House.
Earlier in the day, Bush talked by telephone with Norwood, who is pushing a version the president has opposed.
Despite Bush's efforts, Republican moderates may force GOP leaders to compromise on patient lawsuits when the House takes up the legislation next week.
The president even went to Capitol Hill Thursday to push publicly for a bill that would curb most lawsuits. But in private talks, White House negotiators are considering concessions.
Bush told a small group of lawmakers that he would consider higher limits on damages, but did not name a specific figure, sources familiar with the meeting said.