- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 7, 2000

Senate Republicans this week abandoned their long-held opposition to letting patients sue health insurance companies, a key Democratic proposal, to break a seven-month deadlock over health care reform.

"It's a major move on our part liability has a great potential to drive up costs," said Assistant Majority Leader Don Nickles, Oklahoma Republican and his party's lead negotiator on the issue.

Democrats, who see health care reform as a potent election year issue, quickly dismissed the offer, which Republicans made over the weekend.

"It doesn't go far enough to address the numerous concerns we've raised … it doesn't advance the ball enough to jump-start the negotiations," said Jim Manley, spokesman for Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat.

The Republican offer allows patients to sue their health insurance companies in federal court if the insurers fail to comply with the decision of an independent review panel, designed to settle disputes over which treatments will be covered. The current law sharply limits a patient's right to sue.

The Senate and House passed dramatically different versions of a health care bill last year. The Senate bill, written by Mr. Nickles, did not include the right to sue, while the House bill, backed by Democrats and a rebellious faction of Republicans, did allow lawsuits.

Republicans yesterday denied they were caving into Democratic pressure with the compromise offer, saying they were simply trying to come to an agreement that can pass both chambers, given the wide splits in the House Republican ranks.

Democrats and House Republican rebels said privately they suspect the offer may be an effort to politely kill the bill with a proposal that sounds good to the public but cannot pass.

Republican staff members said they hope the offer will take some sting out of Democratic attacks on the issue either by breaking the impasse or by forcing Democrats to reject an offer that meets many of their concerns.

In addition to permitting lawsuits, Mr. Nickles' new proposal offers to expand the scope of the Republican bill to make more of its provisions apply to all 193 million insured Americans, as did the House bill. Most provisions of last year's Senate bill applied only to the 56 million persons insured under health care plans that are exempt from state regulation under the convoluted current law.

The compromise proposal is "extremely, extremely weak," said John Stone, spokesman for Rep. Charlie Norwood of Georgia, leader of the House Republicans dissidents. "It would not even pass muster with the House Republicans" who supported the Democratic bill.

While Mr. Norwood and the Democrats sounded uninterested yesterday, they have not formally rejected the offer, Mr. Nickles' staff said. Negotiators expect to meet as early as today to discuss it.

But Mr. Kennedy is considering whether to bypass the negotiations entirely and introduce the Democratic version as an amendment to next year's defense bill, which the Senate began debating yesterday. His amendment could come up today, Mr. Manley said.

Republicans said that move would threaten any future negotiations.

The negotiators have a difficult task trying to bridge the gap between House and Senate.

In July, the Senate passed a limited bill, written by Mr. Nickles, that sets up an "external review" system to settle disputes between insurance companies and patients but did not allow patients to sue.

In October, the House passed a vastly different bill, including the right to sue, after Mr. Norwood led 67 other Republicans in support of the Democratic proposal. They soundly defeated a Republican bill, backed by Speaker J. Dennis Hastert and other House leaders, which would have been similar to the Senate bill.

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