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KWAME HOLMAN: Throughout their debate, Senators generally have agreed that patients should have the ability to dispute medical decisions made by Health Maintenance Organizations. Missouri Republican Kit Bond.
SEN. CHRISTOPHER “KIT” BOND: I would say that I am one of probably 95 to 98 Senators who agree very strongly that we need to adopt a bill which says if you have your health care through an HMO or another insurance plan, if you’re denied treatment, you want an independent medical expert to tell if you really deserve that treatment and if it’s a child you get a pediatric expert. Those things we agree on.
KWAME HOLMAN: However, in their attempt to create a patients’ bill of rights, most Republicans and Democrats this week remained divided over a patient’s right to sue, when to sue, who to sue, and where to sue. Attention turned to Maine Republican Olympia Snowe, who began a bipartisan effort to reach a compromise on legal liability with the support of President Bush.
SEN. OLYMPIA SNOWE: He called me encouraging a consensus on the major outstanding issues, because he wants to be able to sign a patient bill of rights.
KWAME HOLMAN: Meanwhile, Texas Republican Phil Gramm yesterday stepped up with his own attempt to exempt all employers from legal liability for decisions an employer-provided health care plan might make.
SEN. PHIL GRAMM: Employers large and small all over America provide health insurance because they care about their employees and because they want to attract and hold good employees, but every employer in America has the right under federal law to drop their health insurance. I am concerned — many are concerned — that employers would be forced to drop their health insurance with the liability provisions that are in the bill. All over America small businesses are going to call in their employees and say, I want to provide these benefits but I can not put my business that my father and mother and my family have invested their heart and soul in and therefore, I’m going to have to cancel your health insurance.
KWAME HOLMAN: Massachusetts Democrat Edward Kennedy, co- sponsor of the patients’ rights bill supported by most Democrats, charged Gramm was overstating the case.
SEN. EDWARD KENNEDY: Now he can distort, misrepresent, misstate what is in this legislation, but we know what has been in this legislation, and that is only to hold the employer who is acting in the place of the HMO that’s going to be making a medical decision that is going to harm an individual, a patient, that may cost that patient the life or serious illness, they ought to bear responsibility. And under the Gramm amendment, it’s a – they can be free and clear – free and clear of any kind of responsibility no matter how badly hurt that patient is; that’s absolutely wrong.
KWAME HOLMAN: When the vote was taken, a handful of Republicans joined all 50 Democrats in opposing the broad employer exemption offered by Senator Gramm.
SPOKESMAN: They yeas are 43 and the nays are 56. And the amendment is not agreed to.
KWAME HOLMAN: Today, Colorado Republican Wayne Allard responded with an offer to exempt from liability owners of small businesses.
SEN. WAYNE ALLARD: This amendment is a very responsible amendment. I think it’s need if it’s not adopted the small business community of 50 employees or less will suffer.
KWAME HOLMAN: North Carolina Democrat Edwards, another bill co-sponsor, expressed sympathy for Allard’s concern, but not his remedy.
SEN. JOHN EDWARDS: So while I understand the issue being raised by my colleague, this measure is extreme and it penalizes almost half the families in this country and leaves them out of the patient protection. Those families will still be in the same place today, which is HMO’s can deny them coverage and they can’t do anything about it. They are simply stuck.
KWAME HOLMAN: Senator Allard attracted more votes than Senator Gramm did, but not enough to make his amendment part of the patients’ rights bill. Shortly afterward however Senator Snowe, Ohio Republican Mike DeWine, and Arkansas Democrat Blanche Lincoln, emerged with a compromise they said would make clear legal protections for both patients and employers.
SEN. MIKE DeWINE: This amendment makes things simpler, it clarifies things. It will be less ambiguous.
KWAME HOLMAN: Under the compromise, employers could shield themselves from liability by designating an insurer to make medical decisions on their behalf. If an employee is denied care under an employer-provided health plan, he or she could sue the insurer, not the employer.
SEN. BLANCHE LINCOLN: Our amendment that we have presented makes it crystal clear that employers, both large and small businesses, don’t open themselves up to new liability simply for providing health insurance to their employees. But unlike the Gramm amendment and Allard amendment we do protect the employees better in this amendment: If the employer denies care under the health care plan the employee has legal protection, and that was our objective.
KWAME HOLMAN: This afternoon at the White House, President Bush didn’t mention Senator Snowe’s compromise. He was meeting with House Republicans about their newest version of patients’ rights legislation. He said he preferred it.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: There are some other alternatives that are working their way being debated on the House and Senate that will run up the cost health insurance for American workers and could conceivably cost millions of people their health insurance: I can’t accept that kind of legislation.
KWAME HOLMAN: The House won’t take up a patients bill of rights until later this summer. Meanwhile, the senate continued to debate amendments in an effort to meet the Democratic majority’s demand that a patients’ rights bill be completed before Senators leave for the scheduled week-long Fourth of July recess.