Bush HMO Plan Found Cheaper Than Rival's

From Associated Press

The Bush administration's plan for letting Americans sue their HMOs would be cheaper in the long run than a bill planned next week by the Senate's new Democratic leadership, congressional budget analysts concluded Thursday.

Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) praised a report by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, which said his version of the patients' bill of rights would increase the median annual insurance premium by 2.9%. A month ago, the same analysts said a rival plan by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) would boost annual premiums by 4.2%, or roughly $100.

"Our goal throughout this debate must be to provide better health care for Americans, which includes strong protections and affordable costs," Frist said.

The Frist bill, supported by President Bush, allows patients to sue health plans when necessary medical treatment is denied, but it limits suits to federal courts and caps damages at $500,000. Supporters say the caps would keep insurers from raising rates.

Democrats would focus on a plan that would allow suits in state and federal courts and awards of up to $5 million. They contend any premium increases are a small price to pay for the new rights to care patients would get.

The report came as Democrats prepared for next week's debate on their plan, also backed by Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona--and as another key Republican, Rep. Charlie Norwood of Georgia, grew increasingly frustrated in negotiations with the White House.

"We're not over, but it's getting very much toward the end," Norwood said. "It's hard for me to give up because we're so close."

Norwood, a dentist, has long been a supporter of broad rights to sue. In recent months he hoped to reach a compromise with conservatives wary of potentially large jury awards against insurance companies and businesses that offer their workers health plans.

On Thursday, his talks with Bush officials seemed to wane. In the Senate, another key meeting proved fruitless. Heavy voting on the education bill caused Kennedy and Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) to miss a planned meeting with Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson and other Bush health aides.

That meeting, planned at a McCain-Bush dinner Tuesday, seemed to signal that the White House is interested in a deal with the newly installed Democratic leaders on the issue.

"The president had spoken to John McCain and said he was willing to work something out," Kennedy said. But, he added, "We haven't heard anything from the administration in any way that has changed anything."

Kennedy said a patients' bill of rights would be up for debate once the education plan is done.

Norwood held off endorsements and pledged to work with the White House.

Talks continued Thursday but the Bush camp still objected to state lawsuits, damages for pain and suffering beyond $500,000 and letting patients sue without exhausting other reviews of their cases.

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