House OKs patients' rights compromise
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- After calculated delays by House Democrats, a patients' bill of rights, crafted after a last-minute agreement between the White House and the sponsor of the measure, was approved late Thursday.
President George W. Bush quickly praised the passage of the bill in a statement released by the White House.
"Today's action brings us an important step closer to ensuring that patients get the care they need and that HMOs are held accountable," Bush said.
The House voted 226 to 203 -- mainly along party lines -- in favor of the bill that was revised after sponsor Rep. Charlie Norwood, R-Georgia, and Bush hammered out an agreement on Wednesday.
"I appreciate the bold leadership and hard work of Speaker [Dennis] Hastert, Congressman Norwood, Congressman [Ernest] Fletcher, and others for their efforts to make patient protections a reality for all Americans after years of gridlock," Bush said.
Gephardt bemoans 'squandered opportunity'
But House Democratic Leader Richard Gephardt said the president had guaranteed gridlock by striking a deal with Norwood and not getting input from Democrats.
"This could have been a bipartisan bill, but the White House squandered that opportunity," Gephardt said in a statement released by his office. "Instead, what we have is a Republican bill, a bill that will now go into an endless conference committee. This is exactly what the HMOs want."
No Republicans crossed the aisle to vote against the measure, and five Democrats joined their GOP colleagues in support of the measure.
Earlier in the day, Democrats had tried unsuccessfully to stall the measure by calling a roll-call vote on a motion to adjourn.
"We want to retard the process enough so members have enough time to learn about what was done," said Rep. John Dingell, D-Michigan.
The adjournment motion failed, paving the way for the House to hand Bush a major agenda victory.
Earlier, on a 218-213 vote, the House passed the Norwood amendment that would set strict caps on damage awards and impose federal standards on state courts.
The amendment was a compromise over the main sticking point for the Bush administration, which preferred to limit suits to federal court, where damage awards are capped. Norwood wanted to include state courts, where in most cases damage awards are not capped.
Under the approved amendment, "pain and suffering" and punitive damage awards in lawsuits would be capped at $1.5 million each.
Punitive damages could be applied when a jury finds a HMO refused to provide care even after an independent review sided with the patient. Bush previously had agreed to support non-economic damages up to $500,000 and was opposed outright to punitive damages.
Bush and Norwood agreed patients should have the right to sue even if the independent review board agreed with the HMO's decision to deny coverage. In these cases, however, the patient would face a higher burden of proof.
Lawsuits against an employer would be filed in federal court, but insurers could be sued in state court under federal rules. White House aides said Bush insisted that federal rules be used in state suits to set a uniform standard in all 50 states.
The bill now faces strong opposition from majority Democrats in the Senate.
North Carolina Democratic Sen. John Edwards, who along with Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Massachusetts, has backed the Senate version of Norwood's bill, said Norwood's deal maintains the privileged status of HMOs, and "denies effective remedy for patients in court."
Kennedy blasted the Bush administration for being "much too protective" of HMOs.
"There is no justification for HMOs to be the only industry in this nation free from any liability when they cause death and injury to an American," he said.
The Senate approved a much broader patients' rights bill in June which Bush has threatened to veto. Bush took a more conciliatory tone after the House version passed.
"As this bill heads to the conference committee, I remain committed to extending the hand of cooperation to all who share a commitment to achieving real results for better health care for every American," he said.
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