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Bush threatens veto of patients’ rights bill

WASHINGTON (AP) – President Bush issued a formal veto threat Thursday against a Democratic-backed patients’ bill of rights, saying the measure would encourage unnecessary lawsuits and drive up the cost of health insurance.

”The president believes that patients should be given care first – litigation should be the last resort,” the administration said in a written statement that also reiterated Bush’s desire to sign legislation this year that provides ”strong patient protections.”

Bush’s threat drew a tart rebuttal from Sen. Edward M. Kennedy and other supporters of the measure that Democrats have made their first order of business since gaining a Senate majority a few weeks ago.



Kennedy, D-Mass., accused the president of taking ”exactly the HMO line,” and said it was disappointing he had vowed to ”veto comprehensive patient protections supported by virtually every group of doctors, nurses and patients. The president should stand with them and not with HMOs and insurance companies.”

Republicans privately expressed relief over the president’s actions, saying it would make it easier for them to build support for less expansive proposals in both the House and Senate. One senior GOP aide, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the White House had been lobbied by congressional Republicans who feared the president might not state his position forcefully, and thus undercut their own efforts.




The legislation would strengthen the hand of patients dealing with HMOs by guaranteeing them access to emergency treatment, medical specialists and other types of care.

It also would give patients the right to sue HMOs for denial of care in federal or state courts, and to seek punitive damages – an issue sparking much of the controversy surrounding the legislation. One provision strongly opposed by Republicans would permit patients to sue before completion of an appeal of an adverse HMO decision on medical treatment.

The Senate debated its legislation as House Republicans signaled a delay in drafting their own measure. In a concession, GOP leaders agreed earlier this week to accept a new right to sue HMOs in state court in cases in which the insurance companies refuse to abide by the results of an outside appeal of a denial for service. GOP sources said earlier in the week the White House was aware of the proposal and had not objected.

”This is a slow process. I expect we’ll have it out sometime in July,” Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., said of the emerging bill. He had earlier said a vote by the full House might be possible by the end of next week.

The Bush’s statement overshadowed the day’s debate on the Senate floor, where Republicans advanced an amendment to make the cost of health insurance fully tax-deductible for the self-employed beginning Jan. 1. Current law provides for full deductibility on Jan. 1, 2003.

Even that move underscored the political stakes involved in the patients’ rights debate. Sen. Tim Hutchinson, R-Ark., who faces a difficult re-election contest next year, was the principal sponsor of the politically popular amendment.

”This amendment addresses specifically how we can decrease the number of uninsured,” he said. He added that roughly 25 percent of the nation’s self-employed are without health insurance – more than 3 million people – in part because coverage is too costly. Corporations already are permitted to fully deduct the cost of insurance they provide their workers.

The bill’s supporters dismissed the amendment as a ploy to sink the bill and sidetracked it on a procedural, nearly party-line vote of 52-45.

They noted that it runs afoul of a constitutional requirement for tax measures to originate in the House, and said it would also trigger a provision under Congress’ budget rules requiring 60 votes for passage. That’s the same level of support needed to overcome a filibuster, but Republicans have generally said they don’t plan to mount a traditional filibuster.

But Republicans said those pitfalls could easily be avoided and accused Democrats of trying to duck the issue. ”I regret that the Democratic leaders don’t want to vote on the substance of the amendment,” said Sen. Judd Gregg. He said that even the Democratic bill, as drafted, would be subject to a 60-vote requirement for budgetary reasons.

Hutchinson read Bush’s statement aloud on the Senate floor.

The president believes the bill ”would encourage costly and unnecessary litigation that would seriously jeopardize the ability of many Americans to afford health care coverage,” it said. ”…The president will veto the bill unless significant changes are made to address his major concerns.”

The administration’s statement said the measure would expose employers and unions to different and inconsistent state-law standards in the event of a lawsuit, and also would create ”open-ended and unpredictable lawsuits” against employers.

Led by Kennedy, Sen. John Edward, D-N.C., and John McCain, R-Ariz., supporters swiftly answered Bush’s charges.

Edwards said an analysis by the Congressional Budget Office indicated that relatively little of the increase in cost would result from the lawsuit-related provisions, and accused Republicans of trying to ”move the focus” away from the patient protections embedded in the legislation.

”It has to do with quality of care. When you get better care…it does cost a little bit more money,” he said.


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