HMOs: The Year's Hot Political Issue
By Brooks Jackson/CNN
WASHINGTON (July 13) -- Washington took notice when audiences cheered Helen Hunt's diatribe against her health plan in the movie "As Good As It Gets."
And one Republican pollster got a similar reaction from a focus group registering reactions to health maintenance organizations through a computer.
The findings showed the groups expressed disapproval when exposed to talk of HMO practices, and then strong approval when talk turned to regulating HMO's.
"People feel really, really strongly about certain elements in the health care debate," says Republican pollster Bob Castro.
They feel so strongly, in fact, Democrats are running campaign commercials on the subject.
North Carolina Senate candidate John Edwards is running an ad that promises "a patients' bill of rights so insurance companies can't stop you from choosing your own doctor."
Democrats say it's an issue as powerful as they come.
"Oh, I mean, it's life or death; other than that it's not important," says Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Bob Kerrey.
"It will be part of almost every campaign in the country this year," according to Democratic pollster Mark Mellman.
So Republicans are scrambling to write their own patient rights bills.
Health plans would have to pay for pediatricians under both Democratic and Republican proposals, as well as obstetricians and emergency-room visits. Both proposals would also ban health-plan "gag rules" preventing doctors from recommending expensive tests or treatments.
One big difference: the Democratic bill would allow patients to sue for damages if health plans harm them by denying benefits. That is not in the Republican plan.
The HMO industry doesn't care much for either plan.
"We have a situation where pollsters, consultants, and any other individual in the political arena has basically sent a message to their candidates, 'Run against managed care,'" says Karen Ignagni of the American Association of Health Plans.
So the debate over patients' rights is coming to a head. Congress has only a few more weeks to pass a bill and that could happen.
If not, voters will be asked to decide what government should force health plans to pay for? And how much are voters willing to pay?