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Patients’ Rights Vote Planned Next Week

With the help of the Bush administration to rally Republication support, House leaders say they are likely to pass a bill the White House will endorse.

The issue of consumers’ rights to sue an insurer has slowed consideration of the full proposal. A bill supported by most Democrats favors easier access to the courts. President Bush has said he would sign a bill that only allows such suits in rare circumstances.

House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) said he hopes representatives will find a middle ground that both sides can endorse.

“In some situations we’re willing to go to a state court. That’s one of the things we are working on. We need to get a bill the president can sign,” he said.

A question of the courts

Both bills under consideration guarantee access to emergency room care, pediatricians and women’s health specialists. They vary greatly, however, over the terms of suits and damages that can be awarded.

The Republican-backed bill, sponsored by Kentucky Rep. Ernie Fletcher, limits a patient’s ability to sue health maintenance organizations to the federal courts.

State courts, which tend to favor the consumer and set awards much higher, would only be used if an HMO refuses to abide by an independent panel’s ruling.

The plan also places a $500,000 limit on pain and suffering damages in federal court.

A bipartisan bill, backed by most Democrats, allows easier access to the courts. Sponsored by Reps. Charlie Whitlow Norwood (R-Ga.), Greg Ganske (R-Iowa) and John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), the bill says patients can sue in federal or state court after an independent appeal.

The proposal also includes a $5 million cap on punitive damages in federal court cases.

House leadership plans to woo support from 12 key GOP moderates. If they are unable to garner the support, sources say they will likely try to modify the Democratic plan.

The Senate passed a bill earlier this month that was supported by all 50 Democrats and only nine Republicans.

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