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Democrats push for patients bill of rights

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- With negotiations likely to resume Monday between the White House and Rep. Charles Norwood, R-Ga., over a patients' bill of rights, Senate Democrats Saturday tried to step up pressure on the House of representatives, calling for a vote this upcoming week. In the weekly Democratic radio address, Missouri Senator Jean Carnahan said "it's wrong to delay any longer."

House Republican leaders announced this past week that they were delaying a vote on the legislation until next week or after Labor Day, after they realized they didn't have enough Republican votes to pass a measure sponsored by Rep. Ernie Fletcher, R-Ky., that is backed by the White House.

However, Friday, an aide to House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., said the current plan is to bring the issue to the floor before lawmakers depart for their August recess.

CNN's Judy Woodruff talks with Reps. Dingell and Fletcher about the proposed patients' bill of rights (July 27)

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In her radio address, Senator Carnahan, D-Mo., called the Fletcher bill a "weaker alternative" as compared to the legislation sponsored by Representatives Norwood, Greg Ganske, R-Iowa and John Dingell, D-Mich., which mirrors the bill passed by the Senate in June.

"Opponents have put forth a weaker alternative," said Carnahan. "They hope we will agree to lesser protections for the American people. But make no mistake: there are real differences between our two proposals. On every major issue, they side with the insurance companies and we side with patients."

Bush has said he would veto the Senate bill and the comparable bill in the House, charging that the bills would lead to too many lawsuits, and would force up health care costs, forcing small businesses to no longer provide health care coverage to their employees.

Carnahan disputed such claims, saying in 1997, her late husband, then Missouri Governor Mel Carnahan, signed an HMO reform bill into law. "They said many Missourians would lose their health coverage. They were wrong," she said. "In fact, the number of people with insurance increased. They predicted a flood of lawsuits. Wrong again. There has only been one lawsuit under Missouri's patients' rights law. That's right -- one."

The White House has been following a two-pronged strategy to get a bill the president can sign. It has been reaching out to Norwood, trying to weave together a compromise that would please Bush and enough Republicans and Democrats.

According to White House and congressional sources, part of the White House compromise would be to allow more lawsuits against HMOs or insurance companies to be filed in state courts, but that state judges would have to try the cases based on federal rules, which could limit the amount of damage awards.

The administration is also continuing to reach out to undecided House Republicans, trying to get them to back the Fletcher bill, which would place more limits on a patient's right to sue his or her HMO than the Norwood-Ganske-Dingell version.

"I'm not going to do any play by play of the negotiations that are underway," Ari Fleischer, the president's spokesman, told reporters Friday.

The main sticking point continues to be over liability. Under the Fletcher bill, a patient could only sue his or her HMO in state court, if the health care provider ignored the decision of a review panel. All other suits would be filed in federal courts, where pain and suffering damages would be capped at $500,000.

Under the Norwood-Ganske-Dingell bill, a patient could sue in state and federal courts. State damages would be based on state laws. There would be no federal cap on pain and suffering damages, and federal punitive damages would be capped at $5,000,000.

Bush who had urged Congress to pass a patients' bill of rights before the August recess, seems to be backing away from that deadline.

"The president is less interested in the exact timing of the vote and much more interested in getting the job done," said Fleischer.

Carnahan said the Congress has debated the issue for five years, and called for any end to any further delay.

"For every day we delay, 7,000 patients are denied a referral for needed specialty health care," she said. "For every day we delay, 10,000 patients are denied coverage of a needed diagnostic test. The American people have waited long enough for real patient protections."

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