BUSH looking to deal with patients' rights rivals; House GOP says vote could come next week

Thursday, July 26th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ House Republican leaders said Thursday they could allow a vote on a rival patients' rights bill next week, departing from their strategy of trying to lure supporters to their own version. The concession came as White House negotiators warmed to the idea of expanded rights to sue health plans in state courts.

``It is my intent to take up patients' bill of rights next week,'' said House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill. ``In some situations we're willing to go to a state court. That's one of the things we are working on. We need to get a bill the president can sign.''

Bush, who lobbied undecided members heavily Wednesday, met Thursday with Rep. Charles Norwood. The Georgia Republican is shepherding moderates on the Democratic-backed patients' rights legislation that Bush has promised to veto.

Hastert, who planned to meet with the president at the Capitol Thursday, said discussions center on resolving differences over how patients can sue if they've been injured by a health plan's decision to provide health care. He did not rule out continued support of the GOP majority bill _ a proposal by Rep. Ernest Fletcher, R-Ky. _ that grants the same rights, but limits the instances in which patients could go to state court for redress.

But, he said, ``We're trying to get some agreement with Norwood.''

Norwood spokesman John Stone said the congressman also wants to work with the majority. ``He's never quit negotiating.''

Norwood, a conservative on other issues, said Wednesday he's continued talks with the White House during a lot of late nights. But he said as far as concessions go, ``I've made mine.''

Norwood backers said the White House just hadn't persuaded enough lawmakers to promise votes for the Fletcher proposal. Rep. Bob Barr, R-Ga., a sponsor of the Norwood bill, said he appreciated discussions with Bush, but still found the Fletcher bill offers too many loopholes for errant health plans. ``Under current federal law, HMOs are shielded and not accountable for their decisions denying patient care,'' Barr said after meeting with the president. ``This has to change.''

House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., said the legal protections in the Fletcher bill were too weak and would take the heart out of the bill. He urged GOP leaders to drop efforts to peck away at the majority supporting the Norwood legislation.

``You can't continue to fight against the will of the House,'' Gephardt told reporters. ``We know where the majority of the House is.''

The Bush administration hasn't publicly indicated a compromise it's willing to make. Several Republican sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, had said the White House had discussed limited fresh concessions in the pivotal area of lawsuits, including expanded access to state courts for patients seeking to sue their health maintenance organizations.

Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer, however, said the president would veto the Norwood bill in its current form, and is likely to renew that threat despite any delays in Congress: ``The president's focus is on the substance of the legislation, much more so than the timing of it.''

Both versions of the legislation would offer millions of Americans new protections such as the right to emergency room care, access to specialists, minimum hospital stays for mastectomies and access to government-run clinical trials.

They differ most over granting patients the right to sue HMOs for denial of care. The Democratic-backed bill provides easier access to the courts.

The Republican bill offers a more limited ability to sue HMOs. It permits suits in state court only if an HMO refuses to abide by the results of an independent panel's ruling.

Under the Democratic legislation, patients can sue in federal or state court if they lose an independent appeal, and recover substantial damages if they win in court. It includes a $5 million cap on punitive damages in federal court cases.

Bush has threatened to veto the bill, preferring the GOP plan that does not allow punitive awards and places a $500,000 limit on pain and suffering damages in federal court.

Congressional staffers spoke of behind-the-scenes arm twisting. Some lawmakers were reportedly offered lucrative projects in their districts; others were given tips on how to explain any change of heart to the voters back home.