- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 25, 2001

House supporters of a White House-backed patients' protection bill said yesterday they need just "a handful of votes" to pass the legislation instead of a Senate-passed measure opposed by President Bush, but House leaders may yet delay a vote planned this week.
"I'm perfectly willing to let people take their time to study things through," House Majority Leader Dick Armey, Texas Republican, told reporters at his daily Capitol Hill press briefing. "You have to be patient. We're confident we'll get there."
Mr. Armey said House GOP leaders had asked Mr. Bush "to engage, and he has engaged" to pressure reluctant Republicans to back the GOP-endorsed bill authored by Reps. Ernie Fletcher, Kentucky Republican, and Collin C. Peterson, Minnesota Democrat. Its rival is a House companion to the Senate-passed McCain-Kennedy-Edwards bill authored by Reps. Greg Ganske, Iowa Republican, and John D. Dingell, Michigan Democrat.
Yesterday, Mr. Fletcher, a family physician, called a press conference with Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson to announce a one-vote gain in the behind-scenes arm-twisting — that of Rep. Peter T. King, New York Republican, who last year backed passage of the Ganske bill.
Mr. King said he was persuaded by health care policy experts in the office of New York's Republican governor, George E. Pataki, that the Fletcher bill was better. "I want a good bill the president can sign," he said. "It makes no sense to have a bill the president can't sign."
Mr. Fletcher said, "We're down to a handful of votes" between the two bills, and he expressed confidence his bill would pass "if we can educate the members."
Mr. Ganske, a reconstructive surgeon, said last week he expected all but a few Democrats to support his bill and that he had commitments from at least 20 Republicans, which would probably put him over the needed 218 votes for a majority.
Mr. Peterson, co-sponsor of the Fletcher bill, said yesterday: "We don't have a lot of support on the Democratic side, a few more than myself at this point."
Both sides say the two bills are almost identical on 90 percent of their provisions involving health coverage by insurers and patient appeals of health plan denials to cover particular medical treatments. But they differ on the issue of court lawsuits and health plan liability for medical injury.
"The president is passionate about signing **the Fletcher-Peterson** bill," Mr. Thompson said. "Why go through this effort when the president has indicated he will veto a bill that will increase the number of uninsured?" Opponents of the Ganske bill argue coverage would be affected by an increase in lawsuits.
The Fletcher bill would permit lawsuits for medical injury primarily in federal courts while the Ganske bill would permit lawsuits in state or federal courts once all patient appeals are exhausted. The Ganske bill allows juries to award "pain and suffering" damages up to $5 million to an injured patient, while the Fletcher bill limits such damages to $500,000. Both bills allow unlimited economic damages to be awarded.
The Senate-passed McCain-Kennedy-Edwards bill covers members of Congress and those covered by other state and federal health plans, including Medicare and Medicaid patients and military veterans, but neither House bill includes those plans.
Mr. Armey said he might delay bringing the patient protection issue to the House floor tomorrow and Friday if the Fletcher bill does not have a clear majority of supporters according to GOP vote counts.
David Boyer contributed to this article.

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