Bush-Opposed Patients' Rights Bill Nears Vote

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Byline: Joyce Howard Price

House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert says he may bring a Senate-passed, Democrat-supported patients' rights bill to the House floor this week, despite opposition to the measure from the Republican leadership and President Bush.

Meanwhile, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson told "Fox News Sunday" the White House is just "six to 10 votes" short of what it needs to derail that bill and to push through an alternative favored by Mr. Bush.

Asked yesterday if the president's threat to veto the Senate-passed version of a patients' rights measure was valid, Mr. Thompson said, "Absolutely . . . he said he wants a good bill, and he will not accept a bad bill that is going to increase the amount of litigation and . . . increase the number of people that will be uninsured."

Negotiations between the White House and Rep. Charlie Norwood, Georgia Republican, a key House sponsor of the measure opposed by the president, continued throughout the weekend as the two sides sought to come up with a compromise patients' rights bill that Mr. Bush would sign.

On Fox, Mr. Thompson said talks would continue today. "Hopefully, we'll be able to reach an agreement . . . hopefully Congressman Norwood . . . can move somewhere toward the president, so the president can say, `Yes, this is acceptable.'"

In an interview yesterday on NBC's "Meet the Press," Mr. Hastert, Illinois Republican, was asked if he would allow up-and-down votes on the Norwood bill and a rival House version that Mr. Bush supports, if no compromise is reached.

Contending that the two bills agree on 98 percent of the issues, Mr. Hastert said, "The one issue that differs is the liability side. So we may decide to use the Norwood bill, to use all his provisions in that.

"But if there is a challenge on that or if we can't get agreement, then certainly there'll be an amendment dealing with liabilities," said Mr. Hastert, who, like the president and other House Republican leaders, favors an alternative measure sponsored by Reps. Ernie Fletcher, Kentucky Republican, and Collin C. Peterson, Minnesota Democrat.

The main differences between the Fletcher-Peterson bill and the measure backed by Mr. Norwood, which is co-sponsored by Rep. John D. Dingell, Michigan Democrat, and Rep. Greg Ganske, Iowa Republican, are on issues such as where patients who are denied medical coverage can sue health insurerers and for how much.

Under the Norwood-Ganske-Dingell bill, patients would have broad authority to sue insurers in state and federal courts. They could win unlimited awards for economic losses and pain and suffering in state courts. In federal court, they would be eligible for up to $5 million in punitive damages.

Under the Fletcher-Peterson bill, noneconomic damages in federal courts would be capped at $500,000, and patients could sue in state courts only if a health maintenance organization (HMO) ignored decisions of a medical review board. …