Senate OKs Limited Patient Rights

Friday, June 30th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) — Senate Republicans are on record for the first time in favor of giving patients a limited right to sue HMOs, but what they call a major concession Democrats dismiss as mere political cover in the run-up to the fall elections.

``We offered a significant compromise proposal'' on several contested points in patient rights legislation, Sen. Don Nickles., R-Okla., said Thursday night as Republicans maneuvered their plan past Democrats on a 51-47 vote.

But Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., offered a swift rebuttal.

``Any Republican who goes back to their state and tries to sell this ... has a thick skin and a safe seat,'' he said.

The provision was attached to a $352 billion measure financing the departments of Labor, Education, and Health and Human Services next year, which the Senate approved Friday by 52-43. The White House has said President Clinton will veto the bill because the measure provides less than he has proposed for hiring teachers, social services and other programs.

The Republican plan provides several guarantees, including access to emergency room care, out-of-network physicians and specialists for an estimated 56 million insured individuals.

Under the proposal, patients also would be permitted to file suit in federal court against HMOs that improperly denied care, as determined by an independent reviewer.

Republicans said the lawsuit provision would apply to 131 million insured people who could seek unlimited economic damages and up to $350,000 in compensatory damages. Punitive damages would be barred, as would class-action lawsuits.

Democrats said the GOP proposal didn't go nearly far enough, and forced a vote on a proposal requiring that any protections cover all Americans with insurance — a group far larger than covered by the GOP measure.

It was rejected, though, on a vote of 51-47, as Republicans said Democrats were proposing health insurance run by the federal government.

``There are a lot of people who don't want a national health care plan,'' said Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo. ``And I can tell you that if I even considered one, they wouldn't send me back here.''

But Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., derided the Republican approach as ``Honey, I shrunk the plan,'' and taunted GOP lawmakers to say straight out that they oppose patient protection legislation.

The maneuvering did little to clarify the fate of patients rights legislation, which has emerged as a key election-year issue.

House-passed legislation grants more extensive protections to more Americans than either a Senate-passed bill from last year or the proposal adopted Thursday.

And House Republicans who broke ranks on the bill remained adamant during the day that nothing less than protections for all Americans with insurance would suffice. Punctuating that point, Rep. Charles Norwood, R-Ga. issued a written statement shortly after the Senate voted, saying, ``this monstrosity is dead on arrival in the House.''

Formal compromise talks between Republicans and Democrats are moribund, and an effort last week by House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., to bring Norwood and Senate Republicans together on a compromise also failed.

All 51 votes in favor of the Republican measure were cast by GOP senators. Opposed were 43 Democrats, joined by Republicans Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island,John McCain of Arizona and Peter Fitzgerald of Illinois.

Democrats Patrick Leahy of Vermont and Daniel Inouye of Hawaii did not vote.