Clinton calls for more comprehensive patients' bill of rights
COLUMBIA, Missouri (CNN) -- President Clinton on Thursday lambasted a patients' bill of rights recently passed by Senate Republicans, saying it was an election-year "empty promise" and calling for passage of a more comprehensive House measure.
"We need a real patients' bill of rights with real accountability and real rights, not just one that provides cover for the special interests," said Clinton, who joined on-stage by doctors and health administrators during a speech at the University of Missouri in Columbia.
"Of course you should have prudent management, of course we should avoid wasting any money," he added. "But let's not forget why all these people are doing this, why they've got their white coats on. It's to help people stay well and to help them get well."
The House and Senate have passed different versions of patients' rights legislation, but have not made much headway in resolving their outstanding disparities -- including significant differences over a patient's right to sue their health maintenance organizations, and whether patients in state-regulated HMOs should be included in the final bill.
Clinton favors the House legislation, sponsored by Reps. Charles Norwood, R-Georgia and John Dingell, D-Michigan, which has broader coverage and lawsuit provisions. The measure also calls for direct access to specialists and protects patients from being penalized for seeking emergency room care without prior HMO approval.
Senate Republicans, led by Oklahoma Sen. Don Nickles, rejected a similar version of Norwood-Dingell earlier this month, and later passed a more limited patients' bill of rights.
The GOP-backed Senate bill -- which was approved last week by a slim 51-47 margin, mostly along party lines -- hinges a patient's right to sue an HMO upon the approval of an independent review panel. Unlimited economic damages could be requested, but there would be a cap in compensatory damages of $350,000.
Clinton, with Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan at his side, said the liability provisions in Republican bill would undermine right-to-sue guarantees offered under state law.
"A new analysis released today by a number of prominent legal scholars concludes that the Senate bill would be even worse than the current law, because it would effectively wipe out protections that states like Missouri have already passed," Clinton said.
President Clinton: "We need a real patients' bill of rights with real accountability and real rights."
The White House released a summary of the review -- conducted by scholars at George Washington and Rutgers universities -- earlier on Thursday. The review concluded that the Republican bill would be "far worse than were Congress to enact no measure at all."
Clinton also said the Republican plan fails to provide "real access to specialists in a timely fashion" as well as access to the nearest emergency room.
"You might have the right to see a cancer specialist, but the nearest doctor your plan may offer could be 100 miles away, or you might have to wait two weeks to see the person that's listed," he told the audience.
Clinton also added that the Republican bill guarantees cancer patients access to potentially life-saving clinical trials, but does not extend similar protections to people with diabetes, Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, multiple sclerosis and other diseases.
"This is going to get to be more and more important, Clinton said. "You're going to have an explosion of chemical trials as a result of advances coming out of the Human Genome Project and people shouldn't be denied the right to get a new lease on life because they happen to be in an HMO."
>Both sides pessimistic
While the Democrats want to legislate protections for an estimated 169 million Americans with private insurance, the Republican legislation would only cover an estimated 56 million Americans mostly enrolled in self-insured plans not covered by state law, arguing that that additional federal protections for other Americans are unnecessary.
Earlier in the day, Carnahan, a Democrat, told the audience that many state plans were lacking in patient protections.
"Since its passage, our patients' bill of rights has become a model for managed care reform across the country," Carnahan said. "This kind of reform should not be limited only to those states that have taken on the issue of patients' rights," Carnahan said. "It must be available across America."
But negotiations between the White House and Republicans in Congress on a bill of rights
have stalled in recent months, leaving both sides are pessimistic about achieving a compromise this year.
Nickles, who chairs a House-Senate conference committee on the patients' issue, has accused of obstructing negotiations because they would rather have an issue for November elections than a bill signed into law.
But Norwood, the leading House Republican voice on managed care reform, has called the Senate legislation unacceptable.
"We will not support any bill that does not allow patients to choose their own doctor, that does not protect all Americans, and that does not hold the insurance industry accountable for its decisions," Norwood said earlier this month.