- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 7, 2000

If rumors that the health care conference committee now considering the Patients Bill of Rights will dissolve are true, it would be a disaster for the Republican Party. One of the most respected pollsters in the United States, John Zogby, has just sounded a loud wake-up call for the Republican leadership in Congress 82 percent of likely voters believe that patients should have the right to sue their HMOs for damages that subsequently result from denied treatment. That's 8 out of 10, 4 out of 5. This is a prohibitive majority that the majority party must be responsive to, otherwise it will end up a congressional minority party once again.

The tentative breakthrough agreement between Republicans and Democrats that would give patients the right to appeal a decision by their HMO to deny them health care is a major step in the right direction. Sen. Don Nickles, Oklahoma Republican, and his Republican conferees deserve hearty congratulations and encouragement. He and our other party leaders should be further encouraged to finish the job and make sure the Republican Congress sends President Clinton a balanced, fair Patients Bill of Rights.

This must be done to ensure our majority in Congress. Yes, this means Mr. Nickles must reach a similar compromise on the "scope" of the bill how do you credibly convince some Americans that they have patients rights and others do not? On the liability issue, the same basic point arises: Currently patients can sue doctors and hospitals and fee-for-service insurance companies but not HMOs. Why? There is no credible way to explain this inequity.

The Democrats' successful portrayal of Republicans as defenders of indefensible HMOs has hurt. Recent polls show Republicans losing to Democrats by large double-digit margins on the issue of health care. Coupled with the newest Zogby findings, the signs are ominous unless the GOP moves the Patients Bill of Rights immediately.

Six years ago, Republicans won their historic, sweeping congressional victory mainly on the strength of their health care position. They stood defiantly against the Clinton administration's fatally flawed health care agenda, which essentially endeavored to move most Americans into a form of HMOs. Defeating government-run health care was one of the GOP's proudest moments. The Democrats, forced to defend the indefensible, saw 40 years of congressional control evaporate.

A typical HMO is a health care rationing machine, and no less so than it was six years ago. HMOs make their money by rationing care, and Republicans were quite cognizant of this fact in 1994 as they attacked Democrats relentlessly. Now Republicans have an opportunity to refute the criticism leveled by many that they have become as bad, or worse, than the Democrats they replaced.

I urge congressional Republican leaders who are now meeting to iron out a final health care bill to remember that Gov. George W. Bush signed a Patients Bill of Rights in Texas, allowing lawsuits against HMOs in that state. Mr. Bush was first elected in 1994 and evidently has not forgotten that Republicans were very successful when opposing government-run health care. Mr. Bush has successfully resisted the role reversal some congressional Republicans have undergone regarding this issue, but that won't stop Democrats from trying to indict and convict him using guilt by association.

This is exactly the trap House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt is trying to lay in his bid to return his party to majority status and in his personal drive to be speaker of the House. Mr. Gephardt knows full well that over the past six years his party has steadily eroded the historic 1995 Republican House majority almost to the point where it is non-existent.

There is no margin of error for Republicans this year. If they are to avoid the Gephardt trap, they must answer to the people and give patients the right to sue their HMOs. Too many Republicans still bear the scars of minority status, and we should prefer to keep that a well-learned history lesson, rather than allow Mr. Gephardt to make history of his own.

This is a no-brainer.

Scott Reed is chairman of the Republican Leadership Coalition and managed Sen. Bob Dole's presidential campaign in 1996.

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