Compromise Urged on Patients' Rights Bill

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Escalating the battle over a key health care initiative, a senior White House official said President Bush will veto a measure that would give new protections to patients unless the plan is modified.

White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. urged Senate Democrats to compromise on a so-called patients' bill of rights sponsored by Democrats Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts and Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina along with maverick Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona.

"This is a trial lawyers' bill," Card said on "Fox News Sunday." "It is not a patients' bill of rights. It's a trial lawyers' bill, and it should be changed."

The White House response came one day after Democrats--in their first national radio address since taking over the Senate--had challenged Bush to work with supporters of the plan to enact a compromise.

"The president has a decision to make. He has to decide whether he's on the side of patients and their doctors or if he's on the side of big insurance companies and HMOs," said Edwards, who delivered the radio message. "I hope that together we can enact a meaningful law that treats HMOs and insurance companies exactly the same way we treat every other company in America."

On CBS' "Face the Nation" on Sunday, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota was more conciliatory, but he emphasized that any effort to reach a compromise should strive to keep any health care reforms "meaningful."

Daschle noted that the bill the Senate plans to take up this month is similar to a patients' rights law in Bush's home state of Texas.

"What we need are ways in which to find the common ground that we are looking for," Daschle said. "We want to do something that should have been done a long time ago--make sure that people have the right to choose their own doctor; make sure that they have the ability for continuity of care; make sure the insurance companies are kept to insurance and not to medicine."

The Kennedy-McCain measure, which has drawn heavy fire from the insurance industry, would give injured patients the right to sue health maintenance organizations and other managed health plans. Patients would be able to seek as much as $5 million in damages.

Bush has argued that the Democrats' plan would increase health insurance premiums and hurt the economy. He has backed a rival measure, introduced by Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), that would permit patients to sue HMOs when necessary medical treatment is denied. But the Frist measure would limit lawsuits to federal courts and would cap damages at $500,000.

A recent report by the Congressional Budget Office forecast that Frist's bill would increase the median annual insurance premium by 2.9%. A month ago, the nonpartisan CBO predicted that the Kennedy-McCain measure would boost annual premiums by 4.2%, or about $100.

Making an appearance on "Face the Nation" after Daschle, McCain said it's unfortunate when the president threatens to veto any legislation. But, McCain added, "I really think we can avoid that outcome" in this instance.

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