Senate rejects attempts to soften patients’ rights bill
WASHINGTON (AP) – The Democratic-controlled Senate turned back dual attempts to soften patients’ rights legislation on Wednesday as President Bush stepped up efforts to win passage of a measure less reliant on lawsuits and more to his liking.
Saying he had signed onto a ”compromise between two positions,” Bush embraced a bill crafted by House Republicans that allows more lawsuits against HMOs than he originally wanted, but fewer than Democrats would allow. ”It will protect patients,” he added.
In an indication of the political stakes, Democrats readied a television commercial calling on Bush to sign their bill. ”Big corporations. They’ve contributed $51 million dollars to Bush and the Republicans,” says the ad, scheduled to air on cable television in the Washington, D.C., area.
”And now Bush says he’ll veto a real patients’ bill of rights that lets patients hold HMOs accountable when they make bad decisions or medical mistakes.”
The developments occurred as the Senate neared a crossroads on the legislation. With several attempts underway to negotiate compromises on key sticking points, a string of pivotal amendments is expected to come to a vote by mid-afternoon Thursday. Democrats are expected to call afterward for a final vote on the bill, putting Republicans in the position of having to decide whether to agree or seek to extend the debate.
Bush has threatened to veto the bill pending in the Senate, claiming it opens the way to litigation that could prompt many employers to cancel the insurance coverage they provide.
He referred only obliquely to the veto threat during the day, when he said the ”American people respect a president who stands on principles … and the most important principle is that we don’t have a piece of legislation that hurts working people.”
So far, the supporters of the legislation have been in command on the Senate floor, agreeing to compromises when necessary, but prevailing without fail when the time came to cast votes.
That trend continued during the day, as Democrats defeated two amendments and bargained behind the scenes over others.
On a vote of 54-45, the Senate rejected a proposal by Sen. Wayne Allard, R-Colo., to exempt employers from patients’ rights lawsuits if they have fewer than 51 employees. Republicans argued the provision was needed to prevent companies from dropping coverage, but Democrats countered it would eviscerate the bill.
Later in the day, supporters of the measure derailed a proposal by Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., and John Kyl, R-Ariz., to protect HMOs from being ordered to provide treatment specifically excluded under their insurance contract.
The vote was 54-45, and a short while afterward, the bill’s supporters came back with a slightly different amendment on the same issue. It cleared unanimously.
In general, the legislation is designed to afford patients treatment that HMOs have sometimes delayed or denied – access to emergency rooms or medical specialists, for example – sometimes with horrifying results. The legislation establishes a provision for a review by an independent panel if an HMO declines coverage. Patients would be permitted to sue in state or federal court, and in a provision that critics strongly oppose, some suits would be permitted even before the appeals process was completed.
The legislation was advanced to the floor by Democrats who decided to make the issue their top priority after gaining control of the Senate last month.
That, in turn, prompted House Republicans to resurrect efforts to craft an alternative, an effort that led to Bush’s formal endorsement during the day at the White House.
Presidential spokesman Ari Fleischer told reporters during the day, ”There are some people in Congress who want a veto … They are interested in politics rather than progress.”
Asked whether he believes Democrats are playing politics with the issue, Bush replied, ”I don’t. I think the Democrats are hopefully trying to come up with a good piece of legislation.”
Bush added, ”Now I hope there are some complaints with HMOs. I signed legislation in Texas that dealt with those complaints.”
As governor of his state, Bush signed into law many provisions of the state’s patients’ bill of rights, including protections for emergency care, access to specialists and other provisions in the competing bills pending in Congress.
But he allowed the most sweeping aspect of the bill – giving patients the right to sue – to become law without his signature.
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