- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 30, 2001

The Senate last night passed a health care reform bill as backers of the Democratic-endorsed legislation ignored White House veto threats and blocked key Republican amendments.
"Today's vote brings us a giant step closer to guaranteeing that millions of Americans will no longer be powerless when their HMOs overrule their doctor and deny needed care," Sen. Edward M. Kennedy said of the bill to rein in health maintenance organizations, which passed on a 59-36 vote.
"In the end, the fate of this bill rests with the president. I'm hopeful he will sign it, or at least let it become law without his signature, as he did in Texas," the Massachusetts Democrat said.
But later last night, President Bush reiterated his earlier veto threat, issuing a statement that said he "could not in good conscience sign this bill, because it puts the interests of trial lawyers before the interest of patients."
Mr. Bush said changes adopted during the debate improved the bill, but that he would work in the House, where the bill now heads, to win legislation "that provides patients with strong protections, holds HMOs accountable, but discourages runaway litigation costs."
Sen. Bill Frist, Tennessee Republican, said Democrats ill-served the country by ramming through a complex bill on the Senate floor with no prior committee action to resolve crucial issues involving medical-injury lawsuits and limits for monetary damages.
"We were stampeded," said Mr. Frist, a cardiac surgeon. "We passed a very bad bill."
Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, chairman of the Senate Republican Conference, said: "It was clear from the bloc voting that [Democrats] had no intention of getting a bill that was signable" by the president.
Yesterday's 59-36 vote also indicated the Republicans could easily muster the 34 votes needed to sustain a presidential veto. Five Republicans, all of whom would have voted against the final bill, were absent for the evening vote.
All 50 Democrats voted for the bill, along with nine Republicans. Voting against were 35 Republicans and Sen. James M. Jeffords, Vermont independent.
Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson appeared on Capitol Hill with Mr. Frist and backers of a Republican-endorsed alternative rejected by the Senate to renew Mr. Bush's call for changes that would enable him to sign the bill into law.
"It's our position that we should be doing everything we possibly can to reduce the uninsured, and this bill goes in the wrong direction," Mr. Thompson said.
The White House is backing a House bill backed by that chamber's leadership that is similar to the Senate bill authored by Mr. Frist and others.
"Why pass something that we all want to do on a bipartisan basis just so the president is going to end up vetoing it?" Mr. Thompson said.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle said he still hoped that Mr. Bush would not veto the bill, arguing that it is very close to Texas law, which holds employers totally harmless from liability for actions by insurance companies and HMOs.
"We've made a lot of changes that the president should find to his liking," Mr. Daschle said. "I can't imagine why the president would want to veto a bill this good. If it's good enough for Texas, it ought to be good enough for the rest of the country."
He also praised Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, as invaluable in getting the legislation approved. Mr. McCain was one of the bill's three sponsors, along with Mr. Kennedy and Sen. John Edwards, North Carolina Democrat.
"We could not have done this without John McCain," Mr. Daschle said. "He was extremely helpful and remarkably courageous."
In Senate floor action yesterday, Mr. Kennedy rallied Democrats to kill a final attempt by Sen. Wayne Allard, Colorado Republican, to exempt small businesses with 15 or fewer employees from federal and state lawsuits by aggrieved employee patients.
"This will be a carte blanche that will open up the fact that 30 per cent of the American work force will not be covered one bit by this legislation," Mr. Kennedy said before a 55-43 vote to kill the amendment.
"It makes no sense … . The only people that have to worry are those employers who are going to connive, scheme, plot in order to disadvantage their employees in ways that are going to bring them irreparable harm, death and injury," he said.
Mr. Allard, who previously failed to get small-business owners with up to 50 employees exempted from lawsuits, said the bill would impose such costly requirements on the smallest community businesses that many would drop health care coverage as an employee benefit, thus boosting the ranks of uninsured, now numbering 43 million.
Democrats beat back Republican efforts on behalf of medical savings accounts and shielding doctors from lawsuits if they contribute "pro bono" medical services to patients.
But Democrats conceded to Republicans on the issues of exhausting patient appeals before lawsuits and class-action litigation.
The Senate voted 98-0 for an amendment by Sen. Fred Thompson, Tennessee Republican, requiring patients to exhaust all medical-review appeals and to wait 31 days before filing a lawsuit claiming "irreparable harm."
The Senate also voted 98-0 for an amendment by Sen. Mike DeWine, Ohio Republican, to limit class-action lawsuits against health plans starting Jan. 1.
"Abusive class-action lawsuits are not a path to assuring access to quality health care," Mr. DeWine said. The amendment allows class-action lawsuits only for employees of a single company or health plan.
Senate Democrats again resisted Republican efforts to exclude lawsuits in state courts and to limit enrichment of trial lawyers from virtually unlimited damages in state and federal courts.
The Senate voted 50-46 to kill an amendment by Mr. Santorum requiring that 75 percent of punitive damages awards be channeled into a federal trust fund to buy medical insurance for the uninsured.
Democrats called the proposal a tax and said it pre-empted state laws on punitive damages.
David Boyer contributed to this article.

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