Bush lobbies fellow Republicans on patients’ rights
WASHINGTON (AP) – President Bush pressed rebellious Republicans to abandon support for a Democratic-backed patients’ rights bill on Wednesday as House GOP leaders, flinching from a confrontation, signaled a likely delay in a vote.
”I’m hopeful we’ll get a bill I can sign,” said Bush, who has threatened to veto the measure advancing in the House. He favors a Republican bill that offers patients fewer opportunities to sue their HMOs.
The developments occurred against a backdrop of intensified negotiations involving the White House, Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., and Rep. Charles Norwood, R-Ga. In recent years, Norwood has emerged as the leading Republican supporter of a bipartisan bill that enjoys overwhelming Democratic support.
Several Republican sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, 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.
Norwood repeatedly turned aside questions about the issues under discussion. Speaking in general terms, he told reporters. ”There may be something we can work out.” But, he added, only a bipartisan compromise would be acceptable.
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 prominently in the provisions granting patients the right to sue HMOs for denial of care. The Democratic-backed bill provides easier access to the courts.
Republicans made no formal announcement they were putting off a vote.
Rep. J.C. Watts, R-Okla., a member of the leadership, told reporters, ”I doubt we’re going to do it Friday.” Other officials said a vote next week was still possible, but they also said the measure could be kept off the House floor until September.
Watts spoke after a closed-door Republican meeting of the rank-and-file in which Rep. Greg Ganske of Iowa warned fellow GOP lawmakers that they could be held to account politically if they voted against Norwood’s bill after supporting a similar measure in 1999.
According to several congressional sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, Ganske said speculation was rife that individual lawmakers were being offered political favors if they would vote for the GOP version of the bill.
Other Republican sources said there had been discussions among administration officials about offering to address a long-standing request by New Jersey lawmakers to provide additional funds for state hospitals with a heavy caseload of low-income Medicare beneficiaries.
But these sources insisted there had been no approach yet to the GOP members of the New Jersey delegation. And Rep. Frank LoBiondo, R-N.J., said, ”The issues are not tied together.”
There are six Republican House members from the state, none of whom has embraced the White House-backed bill.
Patients could appeal any HMO’s denial of care to an independent reviewer under the Democratic legislation. The bill also would permit patients to sue in state court if they lost their appeal, and to recover substantial damages if they won in court. Most employers would be shielded from lawsuits.
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.
In one significant change from the Senate-passed bill, the House measure advanced by Norwood, Ganske and John Dingell, D-Mich., includes tax breaks to make insurance coverage more affordable for the self-employed.
Norwood was at the White House until nearly midnight Tuesday night for discussions with two top presidential aides, according to administration officials. Two Republican sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the White House had discussed expanding the circumstances under which patients could sue HMOs in state courts. There were also discussions about suits against employers who pay for insurance, and class action suits.
At the White House, Bush told reporters he had ”laid out the principles that would allow me to sign a bill, and I stand by those principles.”
Bush has threatened to veto the bill advanced by Democrats, which is patterned closely after a measure that cleared the Senate in June. At the time, he said the bill would encourage ”costly and unnecessary litigation” that would seriously jeopardize the ability of many Americans to afford health care coverage.
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