- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 2, 2001

President Bush yesterday reached an Oval Office compromise on a patients' bill of rights with a key Republican lawmaker, setting up a House vote on legislation Democrats say they strongly support.
In a press conference called just four minutes before the president strode to the podium in the White House briefing room, Mr. Bush said late yesterday afternoon the deal with Rep. Charlie Norwood, Georgia Republican, accomplishes his two main goals: protecting patients and limiting lawsuits.
"After a lot of labor and a lot of discussion, we shook hands in the Oval Office about 10 minutes ago," Mr. Bush said. The emerging legislation — which lawmakers began hammering out last night for a vote as early as today — will be what the president desires, "a bill that was good for patients, a bill that allowed for people to be able to air their grievances, a bill that did not encourage frivolous lawsuits," he said.
As they studied details of the agreement, aides for House leaders said the compromise would fully protect employers from lawsuits. Federal causes of action would be tried in state courts.
The compromise sets a $1.5 million cap on noneconomic damages and a separate $1.5 million cap on punitive damages if a health maintenance organization (HMO) refused to accept the decision of an external independent panel reviewing an insurer's decision denying medical coverage for a patient.
Both the Senate-passed and House bills had no limit on noneconomic damages.
The Senate bill has a $5 million cap on punitive damages, while a House GOP leadership bill endorsed by Mr. Bush capped punitive damages at $500,000.
Mr. Bush had threatened to veto the bill backed by Mr. Norwood and most Democrats, saying it would lead to an explosion of unnecessary lawsuits that would drive up the cost of insurance and prompt some companies to drop or reduce coverage for their employees.
The compromise takes away what both sides said was the final sticking point.
House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Illinois Republican, immediately endorsed the plan.
"Having worked on the health care issue for the last 10 years, I am delighted that we have found a way to get a bill to the floor that the president can sign," said the speaker.
"I commend Charlie Norwood and President Bush for their willingness to put patients first in this debate," said Mr. Hastert.
"We still have a long road to travel, but we are finally on the right path to a balanced approach to health care reform. We should not put trial lawyers first. We should not put HMOs first. We should put patients first and this hard-fought compromise gets us to that position," he said.
Democratic response was wary.
"The president has finally agreed to accept the patient protections" Democrats want, said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat and co-sponsor of the Senate-passed bill.
But, he said, the plan "continues to make these rights unenforceable and protect HMOs more than patients."
The Democrats had pushed the Norwood bill exclusively and shunned another bill offered by Rep. Ernie Fletcher, Kentucky Republican.
Said Scott McLellan, deputy Bush press secretary: "There are some Democrats who do not want to get a bill passed because they want to keep it as a political issue. They're now in the position of looking very partisan."
Mr. Norwood said the bill should be something both Republicans and Democrats can support.
"The bottom line is, we want to change the law," said Mr. Norwood, who followed Mr. Bush to the White House podium. "And the last time I looked, that's pretty difficult to do without the presidential signature.
"So it was a situation where we had to keep talking through this thing, where we could get the president satisfied and willing to sign it but, at the same time, abide by the principles that we started out to do," he said.
The announcement was a major boost for Mr. Bush, who in his first six months as president has managed to achieve several important victories.
Few Democrats in Congress initially supported his $1.3 trillion tax cut, but the legislation proved popular across the country, as does his overhaul of the nation's education system, nearing completion by a House and Senate conference committee.
With the patients' bill of rights, Mr. Bush threatened to veto the Senate-passed legislation that Mr. Norwood and Democrats were attempting to push through the House. After hours of secretive late-night talks over several days involving the White House, Mr. Bush hashed out the deal with Mr. Norwood the way he once did as governor of Texas: a face-to-face meeting concluded by a deal sealed with a handshake.
"The White House is confident that the support of Congressman Norwood means that this would pass on the floor of the House," said presidential spokesman Ari Fleischer.
Congressional aides said the plan is to push the measure through the House today, before lawmakers are scheduled to adjourn for a monthlong summer vacation. When Congress returns in September, the House and Senate would forge a compromise bill in conference and, presumably, send the legislation to the president's desk.
Keeping Republicans in line, however, could take some work. John Feehery, Mr. Hastert's spokesman, confirmed reports of some initial grumbling by Rep. Greg Ganske, Iowa Republican and chief sponsor of the Democrat-supported bill affected by the compromise.
Mr. Ganske, a surgeon, and other sponsors of the bill were not invited to the White House press conference last night or even informed in advance.
"A phone call would have been nice," Mr. Ganske said last night.

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