- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 20, 2001

Republicans yesterday blocked immediate Senate consideration of a health insurance bill in the same way Democrats stalled action on President Bushs recently-passed education reform plan.
Unlike the Democrats, who blocked the Bush education plan for a week in April, the Senate minority will probably only delay their opponents for two days. Senate Republican leaders agreed late yesterday to a compromise that will likely get the bill to overhaul laws governing health maintenance organizations (HMOs) moving again tomorrow.
Republican senators said they oppose the legislation, frequently called a "patients bill of rights" by its supporters, because it gives patients almost unlimited rights to sue employers along with HMOs if they are unhappy with medical care.
"Employers are subject to the right to be sued … for what I expect will be multiple opportunities for a creative attorney," said Sen. Judd Gregg, New Hampshire Republican.
"There would be unfettered class-action suits," Mr. Gregg said of the bill authored by Sens. John McCain, Arizona Republican, Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, and John Edwards, North Carolina Democrat.
Mr. Kennedy and Mr. Edwards denied the claim, saying employers could only be sued under the bill if they had "direct participation" in a decision to deny coverage for a medical procedure ordered by a doctor.
"We specifically exempt employers from being sued," Mr. Edwards said. "Employers cannot be sued, cannot be held liable unless they actually make a medical decision. Its the same as President Bushs principles."
Mr. Bush has said he would veto the McCain-Kennedy-Edwards bill, as written, saying he wants a reasonable limit on monetary damages in lawsuits against HMOs, hospitals, or doctors, and that patients should only be able to sue their health plans in federal court.
Meanwhile, House Republican leaders said yesterday they will move ahead with their own version of the legislation and could be ready for a floor vote late next week.
"The House has an obligation to keep the Senate honest," said a senior House Republican leadership aide. "House leaders want to make sure we get the right bill thats signable and not veto-bait."
One option House Republicans are considering is to "isolate" the liability provision in a separate measure.
The Senate bill allows patient lawsuits in state or federal courts, but not at both levels simultaneously. A rival plan authored by Sen. Bill Frist, Tennessee Republican, and others allows lawsuits only in federal courts.
House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Illinois Republican, called key lawmakers into his office for a meeting last night to discuss a concession that might resolve that issue by including a limited right to sue in state court, the Associated Press reported.
Rep. Ernest Fletcher, Kentucky Republican, told the Associated Press that under the proposal, HMOs would be open to state court suits and punitive damages if they refused to honor decisions on patient care made by outside experts.
In the Senate, Republicans objected to bringing up the McCain bill in the same way Mr. Kennedy and other Democrats initially blocked Senate action in April on Mr. Bushs education plan, as they negotiated higher spending levels with the White House.
In the case of the education bill, Sen. Trent Lott, the Mississippi Republican who was Senate majority leader, had to threaten a cloture vote, requiring 60 votes, to cut off debate and bring up the bill.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, South Dakota Democrat, yesterday issued the same ultimatum to get the patients rights bill moving and scheduled a cloture vote for tomorrow.
"Every day we delay passing a real patients bill of rights, 35,000 Americans are denied access to special care and 10,000 doctors see patients harmed because an insurer refused to pay for a diagnostic test," Mr. Daschle said.
Late yesterday, Republican leaders agreed to a simple majority vote tomorrow morning to proceed with consideration of the bill, on the condition that Republicans could offer the first amendment to the legislation.
Deputy Republican Leader Don Nickles of Oklahoma was instrumental in avoiding a showdown tomorrow over cloture by convincing Democrats to allow numerous amendments to make HMO overhaul more palatable to businesses and keep down costs.
"Congress would be much better off passing no bill than passing a bill that would greatly increase the number of uninsured, particularly in the millions," Mr. Nickles said.
David Boyer contributed to this report.

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