HOUSE approves Bush-crafted patients' rights legislation

Friday, August 3rd 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Rallying behind President Bush, House Republicans passed patients' rights legislation that scaled back lawsuits against HMOs that the Senate-passed version would allow.

Potentially bruising House-Senate compromise talks were certain.

The administration celebrated the slim House approval of a deal brokered between Bush and Rep. Charles Norwood, R-Ga., who made the agreement without involvement of his original Democratic and moderate Republican allies.

The vote ``brings us an important step closer to ensuring that patients get the care they need and that HMOs are held accountable,'' Bush said in a Thursday night statement that celebrated a second congressional triumph in as many nights. On Wednesday, the president won House approval for major elements of his energy plan.

For his part, Norwood said after the vote: ``Like it or not we have to work with this president, who has to sign this bill.''

The bill grants patients a range of guarantees from health plans such as payment for emergency room visits, the right to appeal denials of care if they're harmed and access to courts, through more-limited avenues than the Senate's Democrats offer.

The fight over patients' rights will continue because congressional negotiators from the House and Senate must reconcile the bills' differences, mainly over how patients get to consumer-friendly state courts and how much money juries can award. There was no immediate word on when this House-Senate conference would begin, but in his statement, Bush pledged to extend ``the hand of cooperation'' to work out details.

``This issue is not going away,'' said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., who had placed faith in Norwood and a handful of other middle-of-the-road Republicans to shepherd the Democrat-backed plan through the GOP-led House. Kennedy said the administration could enjoy ``a temporary victory'' but spoke of parliamentary and tactical ploys available to the Democrats.

House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., urged the Democrat-controlled Senate not to ``torpedo this thing.''

``It is time to bring this gridlock to an end,'' said a weary Norwood, who was alternately pariah and savior in Congress on Thursday as members on both sides of the issue reacted to his secret, last-minute deal sealed Wednesday with a handshake in Bush's Oval Office. Cheering Republicans chanted his name, but erstwhile allies were dismissive of his overtures.

Norwood asked colleagues to ``set aside the bitterness'' as he and the Republican majority inserted his deal with the president into his legislation. The vote on the amendment was 218 to 213.

Overall, a patients' bill of rights, which had eluded passage for seven years, passed the House 226-203 after a marathon day of debate, closed-door dealing and public venting about the presidential deal.

``A good, bipartisan bill, the patients' bill of rights, went down to the White House yesterday and came back as the insurance company's bill of rights,'' said Rep. Jim Turner, D-Texas.

But said Rep. Tom Reynolds, R-N.Y., ``There is only one area of true disagreement, whether this bill should protect patients or be a boon for trial lawyers. Patients won.''

The House-passed measure allows most suits against errant health plans to be brought in state court, but under uniform federal rules that could affect, among other things, damage awards. Employers who offer workers health insurance would be tried exclusively in federal courts if they should purposely interfere with doctors' decisions about patient care.

Patients could win punitive damages, awards in federal court meant to send insurers a message about their behavior. But the House bill limits the amount to $1.5 million, about a third of the $5 million cap approved in the Senate.

The House bill also limits federal court awards for pain and suffering to $1.5 million; the Senate bill puts no limits on such awards.

Both chambers defer to state laws on awards when cases are in state courts.

But a group of New Jersey lawmakers worried in particular whether other parts of the Norwood-Bush compromise would undermine New Jersey's new patients' rights law. On Monday, New Jersey became the 10th state to pass a law allowing suits against health plans.

Norwood, a dentist, told lawmakers he was not sure whether the complex legal language did interfere with state laws, as Democrats and doctors' groups contend. He pledged to address those fears with Senate negotiators.

``I know there are words that need to be changed,'' Norwood said.

The Bush victory comes five weeks after Senate Democrats and his chief GOP nemesis, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, pushed their version of HMO reform through the Senate before the Fourth of July holiday.