Bush, Norwood announce agreement on patients’ rights
WASHINGTON (AP) – President Bush struck an Oval Office deal on patients’ rights legislation with a pivotal Republican lawmaker on Wednesday, clearing the way for swift House passage of a measure to combat HMO horror stories.
Bush told a hastily arranged White House news conference that the measure would meet his principles – and gain his signature – by protecting patients without encouraging ”frivolous lawsuits.”
”After a lot of labor and a lot of discussion, we shook hands in the Oval Office about 10 minutes ago,” Bush said, standing alongside Rep. Charles Norwood, a Georgia Republican who has worked closely with Democrats but made a separate peace with the president.
”It does protect the patients of this country,” said Norwood, who followed Bush to the White House podium for the late-afternoon announcement. ”We have accomplished the very goals we set out” to achieve.
The announcement marked a personal triumph for Bush, who had threatened to veto Senate-passed legislation that Norwood and Democrats were attempting to push through the House. After hours of secretive talks over several days involving the White House, aides to Speaker Dennis Hastert and Norwood, Bush said the Georgia lawmaker had agreed to make changes in the measure.
Sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the changes would limit the conditions under which HMOs could be sued and place limits in the damages that patients could win in court. Under the deal, Bush agreed to open the door to more lawsuits than he had proposed, but Norwood agreed to curtail the right to sue that was in the measure he and the Democrats had been backing.
”The bottom line and goal is, we want to change the law,” Norwood said. ”The last time I looked, that’s pretty difficult to do without the presidential signature.”
”The White House is confident that the support of Congressman Norwood means that this would pass on the floor of the House,” said presidential spokesman Ari Fleischer. Officials said they were rushing to push the measure through the House on Thursday, before lawmakers are scheduled to adjourn for a monthlong summer vacation. The Senate has already passed patients’ rights legislation, but it is under a veto threat. House passage would presumably pave the way for an autumn stab at a final compromise.
There was no immediate comment from Democrats with whom Norwood had been aligned in the long effort to push patients’ rights legislation through Congress, including Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass.
Norwood was at Bush’s side at the precise time he had been scheduled to meet with key Democrats in the Capitol.
The Oval Office handshake capped a turbulent few days in which the White House – and Bush personally – had sought an elusive compromise with Norwood, nudging him in private and public to abandon his long-term alliance with Democrats and make a separate peace with the president of his own party.
There was little if any disagreement over the patient protections to be included in the legislation. All Americans with insurance would be guaranteed rights such as emergency room care, treatment by medical specialists and access to government-run clinical trials.
That left legal liability the sticking point – the extent to which HMOs could be sued for delay or denial of care, and what caps, if any, should be placed on the damages that patients could collect.
Sources said the compromise covers patients whose care is delayed or denied and have appealed the HMO’s ruling to an independent appeals panel.
Most suits could be brought in state court, but those involving insurance plans that were self-funded and self-administered by employers would go to federal court. All of them would be handled under federal rules.
The GOP compromise calls for a $1.5 million cap on non-economic damages. Patients could only sue for punitive damages in cases in which an HMO had disobeyed an appeals board ruling, and even then, they could not seek more than $1.5 million. In addition, patients filing lawsuits would have a higher burden of proof in court in cases in which the HMO had heeded the review panel’s order.
Bush had threatened to veto the bill backed by Norwood and most Democrats, saying it would lead to an explosion of unnecessary lawsuits that would drive up the cost of insurance and prompt some companies to drop or reduce coverage for their employees.
Most Republicans supported an alternative with a more limited right to sue, accompanied by stricter caps on damage awards.
The announcement followed a day of political jockeying, as Republicans sought to persuade Norwood to strike a deal whether or not the Democrats wanted to.
At the White House, spokesman Ari Fleischer said Bush stood ready to compromise and added, ”It can happen today if people want it to happen today.” In a reference to congressional Democrats, he said the issue was whether ”the people that Mr. Norwood has been working with for so long will allow Mr. Norwood to enter into an agreement or whether they would prefer a veto.”
Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., a leading Democratic supporter of the measure Norwood supports, saw it differently. The White House, he said, seems to be following Chairman Mao’s philosophy to ”fight and talk.” The administration’s actions, he added, ”raise the question of whether they are negotiating in good faith.”
That left Norwood in the middle, an amiable fourth-term Georgian with a generally conservative voting record, a dentist before he entered politics who long ago aligned himself with Democrats in the effort to combat HMO horror stories.
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