By now, most members of Congress have learned to walk and chew hum at the same time. But can they meet a larger challenge? Can they simultaneously legislate two significant and contentious health care issues-the rights of patients in managed care and the coverage of prescription drugs in Medicare? The next few months will be telling.
Early this year, a conference committee led by Sen. Don Nickles (R-OK) began to reconcile the patient protection bills passed in the House and Senate during 1999. The bills' differences are numerous and in some instances extreme. The House bill gives patients the right to sue a managed care company under certain circumstances; the Senate bill does not. The House bill extends its protections to all privately insured Americans; the Senate bill covers only those in selfinsured plans.
Nickles and other GOP leaders had said the committee might wrap up the reconciliation by Easter, a proposition even they couldn't have really believed. In mid-May, one Democratic congressman acknowledged that only two of the more than 20 issues were completely resolved and another half dozen were getting close to an agreement.
Memorial Day became another deadline that no one took seriously But hey quipped one senator, it's better to set and miss deadlines than to not set them at all.
Get a move on, pleaded the AMA and ACP-ASIM, both strong supporters of the House bill. "We elected our representatives to respond to problems-not just talk about them," says endocrinologist Mary Herald, a member of ACPASIM's board of regents.
Despite medicine's plea, Congress has continued to play politics with patients' rights. Last month, Democrats tried to attach the House version of the patient protection act as an amendment to a Senate reauthorization bill. The exercise (which failed, despite four Republican "ayes") was designed to trap Senate Republicans into once again quashing a tough anti-managed care bill. "It's a stunt;' concluded Sen. Bill Frist (R-TN), the sole physician serving in the Senate. Meanwhile, …