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House Republicans unveil their own patients' rights compromise

By CNN Capitol Hill Producer Ted Barrett

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- House Republican leaders unveiled a compromise patients' bill of rights proposal Tuesday they said President Bush has told them he will sign into law.

The bill gives patients a limited right to sue in state court if they are injured after their health maintenance organization (HMO) refuses to follow a treatment decision by an outside review panel to which the patient had appealed.

The bill is an attempt to bridge the range of thinking on the part of lawmakers on Capitol Hill. Many Republicans don't want to allow any suits against insurance companies, fearing litigation costs will drive up overall health care costs.

Many Democrats want to make it easier to sue, believing the threat of expensive suits will hold the industry more accountable to the medical needs of their customers.

President Bush has said he will veto a broader bill in the Senate that is largely backed by Democrats, which allows suits in both federal and state court.

The GOP bill in the House also protects employers who provide health insurance from being sued by limiting liability to a "dedicated decision-maker," typically the HMO. The employer liability point is a hot-button issue, particularly for Republicans who raise the possibility that employers will drop coverage for their employees if they are exposed to litigation over coverage decisions.

"This bill is an excellent balance, a good compromise, a middle of the road approach that focuses on patients not politics," said Rep. Ernie Fletcher, R-Kentucky, a physician who co-authored the bill.

Rep. Charlie Norwood, R-Georgia, wrote a version of the patients' bill of rights legislation similar to the version being debated in the Senate, but which most of the GOP opposes. He criticized the Republican compromise.

"The design on this latest imposter bill is identical to previous attempts to derail patients' rights -- create a technical right to sue an HMO, with conditions that will disqualify the majority of the cases," he said.

Republicans acknowledge that the competing bill in the House, known generally as Norwood-Dingell, has more votes than their compromise. But GOP aides say they have just started shopping the bill around in hopes of growing support for it.

When it passed the House two years ago, 68 Republicans backed the Norwood-Dingell bill.

Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, said it is unlikely the bill will be considered on the floor until after the July Fourth recess.

Under the proposal unveiled by the House GOP leadership, outside review panels of doctors would be certified by the Secretary of Health and Human Services.

These doctors, who would be specialists in the areas they are considering, would hear appeals from patients who had been denied coverage by their HMOs. If the HMO then refused to abide by the decision of the review panel, the HMO could be sued in state court where damage awards are often unlimited.

The doctors on the review panel would be paid by the insurance industry, Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Billy Tauzin, R-Louisiana, said.

Republicans say their bill both discourages lawsuits and puts patients first by designing a timely process for patients to get medical decisions appealed and carried out.

"This bill has a real chance of passage," Tauzin said.

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