- The Washington Times - Monday, July 30, 2001

House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert says he may bring a Senate-passed, Democrat-supported patients' rights bill to the House floor this week, despite opposition to the measure from the Republican leadership and President Bush.
Meanwhile, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson told "Fox News Sunday" the White House is just "six to 10 votes" short of what it needs to derail that bill and to push through an alternative favored by Mr. Bush.
Asked yesterday if the president's threat to veto the Senate-passed version of a patients' rights measure was valid, Mr. Thompson said, "Absolutely he said he wants a good bill, and he will not accept a bad bill that is going to increase the amount of litigation and increase the number of people that will be uninsured."
Negotiations between the White House and Rep. Charlie Norwood, Georgia Republican, a key House sponsor of the measure opposed by the president, continued throughout the weekend as the two sides sought to come up with a compromise patients' rights bill that Mr. Bush would sign.
On Fox, Mr. Thompson said talks would continue today. "Hopefully, we'll be able to reach an agreement hopefully Congressman Norwood can move somewhere toward the president, so the president can say, 'Yes, this is acceptable.'"
In an interview yesterday on NBC's "Meet the Press," Mr. Hastert, Illinois Republican, was asked if he would allow up-and-down votes on the Norwood bill and a rival House version that Mr. Bush supports, if no compromise is reached.
Contending that the two bills agree on 98 percent of the issues, Mr. Hastert said, "The one issue that differs is the liability side. So we may decide to use the Norwood bill, to use all his provisions in that.
"But if there is a challenge on that or if we can't get agreement, then certainly there'll be an amendment dealing with liabilities," said Mr. Hastert, who, like the president and other House Republican leaders, favors an alternative measure sponsored by Reps. Ernie Fletcher, Kentucky Republican, and Collin C. Peterson, Minnesota Democrat.
The main differences between the Fletcher-Peterson bill and the measure backed by Mr. Norwood, which is co-sponsored by Rep. John D. Dingell, Michigan Democrat, and Rep. Greg Ganske, Iowa Republican, are on issues such as where patients who are denied medical coverage can sue health insurerers and for how much.
Under the Norwood-Ganske-Dingell bill, patients would have broad authority to sue insurers in state and federal courts. They could win unlimited awards for economic losses and pain and suffering in state courts. In federal court, they would be eligible for up to $5 million in punitive damages.
Under the Fletcher-Peterson bill, noneconomic damages in federal courts would be capped at $500,000, and patients could sue in state courts only if a health maintenance organization (HMO) ignored decisions of a medical review board.
The House was scheduled to vote on a patients' rights measure last week, but Mr. Hastert postponed the vote until this week after concluding the Norwood-Ganske-Dingell bill would pass, according to published reports.
The passage of that bill would be a huge defeat for the Bush administration.
On NBC yesterday, Mr. Hastert disputed press accounts as to why the vote was delayed. He said he did not know which bill would win or lose and claimed the vote was postponed because "Mr. Norwood and the White House have been negotiating and talking," and there was no reason to stop that.
"We think progress is being made. I hope we can move the bill [this] week. It's my intention to do that," the speaker said.
On "Meet the Press," host Tim Russert asked Mr. Hastert if he could accept a "$5 million cap on noneconomic damages" and allowing "people to sue their HMOs both in federal and state courts."
"Well, we've said we would accept that," said the speaker.
Mr. Hastert noted that the Fletcher-Peterson bill would allow a patient to seek an "expedited" review by a medical panel if an HMO denies coverage of service that a doctor says is needed. "If the HMO still says no, then you ought to be in state court right away, and that's an expedited procedure — 72 hours."
It was not clear whether Mr. Hastert also meant Republicans would endorse a $5 million awards cap.
Last week, White House press secretary Ari Fleischer suggested Republicans might want to settle on an amount somewhere between $500,000 and $5 million.
Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican and a primary sponsor of the patients' rights bill that passed in the Senate, was asked on ABC's "This Week" if he believed Mr. Bush's veto threat was real.
"I really don't know. But I hope he wouldn't. The threat of his veto, I think, is, at least at this point, part of the motivating factor to get some agreement," Mr. McCain said.
On CNN's "Late Edition," House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt, Missouri Democrat, criticized the nature of the talks between Mr. Norwood and the White House.
Patients, he said, need to have the ability to "enforce their rights." He said the Norwood-Ganske-Dingell bill and the Senate bill sponsored by Mr. McCain, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, and Sen. John Edwards, North Carolina Democrat, provide the "minimum you need in order to enforce these rights."
Mr. Gephardt said he wished the negotiations were "directly between the president's people and leaders in Congress on both sides of the aisle that are for an enforceable bill."
"Thus far, we haven't had that kind of negotiation," he said.

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