- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 28, 2001

Senate proponents of health care reform legislation, seeking to avert a presidential veto, yesterday announced a compromise to prevent lawsuits against employers who provide health insurance coverage for their workers.
"We don't want to offer a disincentive to employers" through rising health insurance costs and the threat of expensive lawsuits, said Sen. Olympia J. Snowe, Maine Republican, who led efforts to find a compromise. Her initiative is supported by President Bush.
The agreement, crafted with Sen. Mike DeWine, Ohio Republican, and Democratic Sens. Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, offered hope that senators could end two weeks of wrangling over liability protections for U.S. employers who offer health care insurance benefits.
Mr. Bush, meanwhile, met with House proponents of another patients' rights bill and praised it as a good alternative that he could sign into law. Of the Senate bill, he said: "I can't accept that kind of legislation. … I also think the American people will respect a president who stands on principle."
The House version, written by Republican Reps. Ernie Fletcher of Kentucky, Nancy L. Johnson of Connecticut and Democratic Rep. Collin C. Peterson of Minnesota, would require that patients exhaust an independent medical review process before going to court. It also would cap economic damages at $500,000.
Mrs. Snowe said the Senate liability compromise, to be debated today, would protect from lawsuits all businesses that have contracts with insurance companies and health maintenance organizations (HMOs) to provide medical benefits to their workers.
Also, businesses with self-financed health plans that have contracts with federally approved "designated decision makers" for medical decisions under their plans would be exempt from court action.
About 6 percent of U.S. employers, generally large companies and unions that have self-financed and self-administered plans, would not be exempt from lawsuits. "We didn't fix that problem," Mr. DeWine said. "There was no way to design something to protect them from exposure."
Opponents of legislation drafted by Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, and Democratic Sens. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts and John Edwards of North Carolina have argued it would force many businesses to drop health benefits for their workers and swell the ranks of the uninsured, who now number 43 million.
They said the bill as written would immediately raise health care costs of businesses 4.2 percent beyond yearly increases of 12 percent, forcing another 1.2 million Americans, mostly children, onto the uninsured rolls.
"Why expose people who are providing health insurance, why expose them to liability?" said Sen. Fred Thompson, Tennessee Republican, who has supported unsuccessful efforts so far to exempt businesses from being sued along with insurance companies and HMOs under the McCain-Kennedy-Edwards bill. The bill would allow patients denied medical coverage to sue their insurers or HMOs for up to $5 million in federal court. Lawsuits also would be allowed to go to state court, where punitive damages are unlimited.
On Tuesday, senators voted 57-43 against a proposal by Sen. Phil Gramm, Texas Republican, to include language of a Texas law, widely praised by Mr. McCain, Mr. Kennedy and Mr. Edwards, to exempt businesses altogether from legal liability.

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