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Democrats, GOP push for patients' rights legislation

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Saying it's time to "end diplomatic immunity for HMOs," Democrats pushed Saturday for their version of a patients' bill of rights that President George W. Bush has threatened to veto.

"Today, only two groups in the United States have total immunity from lawsuits: foreign diplomats and HMOs," said Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa. "We believe it's time to end diplomatic immunity for HMOs. Holding them accountable is the only way to guarantee that you get the health care your family deserves."

The Democrat-backed bill, sponsored by Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Massachusetts; Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, and Sen. John Edwards, D-North Carolina, allows patients to sue insurance companies in state courts for penalties up to $5 million with no limit on noneconomic damages. Bush favors keeping limited lawsuits in federal court and capping pain-and-suffering damages at $500,000, with no provision for punitive damages.

Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa  

"The system should not favor HMOs, and it should not favor trial lawyers," Bush said in his weekly radio address. "It should favor patients with quick action to make sure they get the treatment they need."

Republicans say the Democrats' bill not only allows HMOs to be sued, but leaves employers who offer insurance open to lawsuits.

Republicans also complain that patients' rights legislation does nothing to address the plight of the uninsured. They add that the threat of lawsuits will force HMOs to increase premiums, forcing many Americans to drop their insurance as unaffordable.

Harkin said the GOP and its allies are simply using scare tactics to avoid legislation that would force insurance companies to listen to doctors and not the "accountants."

"The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office has determined that our bill will cost about an average of $1.19 a month," Harkin said. "So, for less than the cost of a Big Mac, you're guaranteed that the medical decisions that affect your life and the lives of your family are made by you and your doctor, not by HMO accountants."

Bush has said he would veto the Democrats' bill in present form.

House Speaker Dennis Hastert  

House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Illinois, said this week he's almost ready to unveil a compromise bill that would allow patients a limited right to sue in state courts if their HMO refuses to follow a coverage decision made by an outside review panel to which the patient had appealed.

That bill won't be sent to the floor until after the July 4 recess.

Bush used the bulk of his radio address to push for new legislation to prohibit "genetic discrimination" in light of the recently completed mapping of the human genome.

"In the past, other forms of discrimination have been used to withhold rights and opportunities that belong to all Americans," he said. "Just as we have addressed discrimination based on race, gender and age, we must now prevent discrimination based on genetic information."

The three-billion-letter human DNA code, called the genome, contains the basic information for building and running a human body.

Cracking the genetic code could help scientists and doctors track the causes of disease and, scientists hope, use the information to find cures.

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