- The Washington Times - Friday, July 27, 2001

President Bush met yesterday with a key Republican opponent of a White House-backed patients' rights bill and later with House Republican leaders on Capitol Hill to try to find compromises that would permit a House vote as early as next week.
After back-to-back meetings at the White House and on Capitol Hill, the president appeared to soften his opposition to a Democrat-supported proposal that would allow patients to sue their health plans in state courts. A companion bill has been approved in the Senate. The House Republican leadership proposal, however, is supported by the Bush administration.
House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Illinois Republican, also backed away from plans to stall a House vote on a patients' rights measure until after Labor Day, saying after meeting with Mr. Bush that he intended to schedule a vote for next week.
Mr. Bush's spokesman, Ari Fleischer, said the president "sees reasons for optimism and progress" after his early morning Oval Office meeting with Rep. Charlie Norwood, Georgia Republican and co-sponsor of the rival patient protection bill.
"The president was encouraged by the meeting," Mr. Fleischer told reporters at his daily news briefing. "They are talking about ways to get a patient bill of rights passed into law that meets the president's principles, principally that it does not drive up the cost of health insurance, because there's no point in enacting a patient bill of rights into law if it means that people are going to lose the very insurance that is designed to be protected."
Mr. Bush was unable on Wednesday to persuade enough wavering Republicans to back a Republican alternative to the Senate-passed bipartisan bill.
Mr. Norwood, a dentist, is backing a House companion to the Senate version authored by Reps. Greg Ganske, Iowa Republican, and John D. Dingell, Michigan Democrat. The Republican-favored bill is co-sponsored by Reps. Ernie Fletcher, Kentucky Republican, and Collin C. Peterson, Minnesota Democrat.
Mr. Norwood has been meeting with White House officials for several weeks, seeking compromises on legal liability for employers and health plans that would end an impasse between backers of competing bills. John Stone, his spokesman, termed the congressman's meeting with Mr. Bush "informative and productive."
Mr. Norwood has objected to liability provisions of the Fletcher-Peterson bill because "it's unworkable and further exposes employers," Mr. Stone said. "Under Fletcher, unless an insurer agrees to be sued, all liability falls on the employer. Under Ganske, unless an employer agrees to be sued, he cannot be sued."
Mr. Norwood also told the president that patients and their families would have major difficulties getting insurers to accept liability in disputes over medical coverage because of "loopholes" in the Fletcher-Peterson bill. Mr. Norwood opposes the bill's requirement for most lawsuits to be filed in federal courts, rather than state courts under current state laws, Mr. Stone said.
Mr. Fleischer declined to specify the points Mr. Bush made in the meeting. Seeking to limit lawsuits to health insurance providers, the president apparently opposes the Ganske-Dingell bill's $5 million limit on punitive damages for pain and suffering, compared with the Fletcher-Peterson bill's $500,000 limit. Mr. Fleischer said the president favors a $750,000 limit on punitive damages under a Texas patients' rights law enacted while he was governor.
"They both have a willingness to work with each other to get the job done, and that's another encouraging sign of progress," Mr. Fleischer said after the president's meeting with Mr. Norwood.
Mr. Bush later traveled to Capitol Hill to meet with Mr. Hastert and other lawmakers. The discussion centered on differences between the two bills involving the ability of patients to sue for injury from a health plan's decision whether to provide health care, said participants in the meeting.
Mr. Hastert said negotiations would continue. "It is my intent to take up patients' bill of rights next week," the speaker said. "In some situations we're willing to go to a state court. That's one of the things we're working on. We need to get a bill the president can sign. We're not done yet."

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