Abortion Ruling Snarls Doctor Vote

Thursday, June 29th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) — The land-mine issue of abortion has complicated the prospects for legislation facing a House vote Thursday to give doctors new rights to collectively bargain with HMOs.

Rep. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., is offering an amendment to the bill that would bar health care professionals from negotiating with health plan organizations about restrictions on abortion services.

Coburn, a practicing physician and an anti-abortion conservative, said his intent is to protect Catholic hospitals and others with philosophical objections to abortion. But he's also fundamentally against the bill, which he says will drive up health care costs and turn public opinion against doctors, and would like to see it defeated.

Supporters of the bill, sponsored by Rep. Tom Campbell, R-Calif., say the Coburn amendment was aimed at making the bill unpalatable to pro-choice lawmakers. Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, said he had no doubt the Rules Committee, which decides which amendments are in order, ``will use this as one last gasp to derail us.''

``It's really unfortunate that every serious issue gets tied up in the abortion debate,'' said Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., chairwoman of the House pro-choice caucus.

Another potentially crippling amendment, to be offered by Rep. Cass Ballenger, R-N.C., would bar negotiations between doctors and health plans related to payments.

Campbell's office says he is confident of the votes for passage, but it's been an uphill struggle for the legislation, which would let health care professionals bargain collectively with health plans over fees and other contract terms.

Campbell, who is running for the California Senate seat held by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, last month openly criticized House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., for not living up to a promise to bring the bill to the House floor and accused members of his own party of delaying action so they could get contributions from groups on both sides of the issue.

The legislation is backed by the American Medical Association and labor groups such as the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. It is stiffly opposed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and health insurance and managed care groups.

Karen Ignagni, president of the American Association of Health Plans, made clear at a news conference that ``we plan to hold members accountable for a yes vote'' on what she said was a ``cartel-forming, boycott-producing'' bill. Her group made public a study estimating that the legislation would increase health care costs by $141 billion over five years and cause 3 million more Americans to become uninsured.

Campbell disputes those findings, saying the bill is pro-consumer in that it would give doctors greater say in opposing HMO contract provisions that interfere with patient-physician relationships.

The Congressional Budget Office also predicts higher costs and some reduced coverage if the bill becomes law, but at a much smaller level than the AAHP study. It estimates an increase of 0.6 percent in private health insurance costs.

Currently, doctors who are employed by a hospital or municipality may unionize, but most of the nation's 650,000 doctors may not join a union because antitrust laws ban collective bargaining by the self-employed.

Coburn, who is leaving Congress at the end of his session, said that if the bill becomes law ``I'm going to crank it up'' and join other doctors to advance his business interests. ``I have every intention of taking advantage of it. It doesn't mean it's the right thing.''