U.S. Senator Bill Frist: The Patients' Bill of Rights

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MARK HUMPHREY/AP

Sen. Bill Frist, R-Tenn., the Senate's only practicing physician

The Republican plan, sponsored by Bill Frist, Democrat John Breaux and Independent Jim Jeffords (and backed by the White House) sets up an extensive appeals process to weed out frivolous lawsuits. It also limits suits to the federal system and puts a $500,000 cap on damages. Republicans argue the Democrats’ bill would leave health plans open to catastrophic legal costs and raise the price of insurance premiums, forcing employers to drop coverage. In the end, the White House argues, the unlimited-damages approach could leave millions of Americans without insurance. (Democrats contend their plan would cost just 37 cents a month more than the GOP plan).

Below, Bill Frist makes the case:

TIME.com:What is the most important difference between the bill you support and the Democrat-sponsored version?

Senator Bill Frist:I want a strong, enforceable Patients' Bill of Rights that will put doctors and patients back in charge of medical decisions and gets patients the care they need when they need it.

Meanwhile, the Kennedy-Edwards bill would allow trial lawyers to influence these decisions while dramatically driving up costs. As a former heart and lung transplant surgeon, I'm fully aware of just how critically important it is for doctors to make medical decisions and for health care costs to remain affordable.

The Kennedy-Edwards bill would expose America's health care system to new, unlimited liabilities, which encourages frivolous and costly lawsuits filed by trial lawyers instead of better health care for patients. In addition, their bill would create new liabilities for employers for merely offering health care benefits to their employees. The result of these new lawsuits is estimated to increase insurance premiums by nearly $400 a year for the average family and increase the number of uninsured individuals by 1.2 million. However, these numbers are likely to be much higher.

Senator Edwards says the Democrats' plan would provide patients with a broader range of rights in exchange for a relatively small price increase (Edwards estimates the difference in the plans' cost at 37 cents a month). How do you respond to this?

The patient protections proposed in both bills are nearly identical. In fact, Frist-Breaux-Jeffords represents the culmination of negotiations between members of the House and Senate from the last four years regarding what patient protections should be included in a Patients' Bill of Rights.

While both bills offer similar health care protections, the Kennedy-Edwards bill would cost hard working Americans nearly 45 percent more than the Frist-Breaux-Jeffords bill. Over 10 years, the cost of their bill would add an additional $240 billion in health care costs for Americans, with much of that increase going straight to the pockets of trial lawyers. We mustn't let trial lawyers stand in the way of providing better health care for Americans. We simply can't afford to pass their bill as written.

Why is it so critical to the Republican version to cap federal court damages at $500,000? And why does the GOP version keep suits out of state courts?

HMOs must be held accountable when they negligently cause harm to patients. Our proposal allows for unlimited economic damages for lost wages, future medical costs and other needs. However, we do propose limiting non-economic damages in order to keep health care costs from skyrocketing.

Without a cap on non-economic damages weíd be creating an economic windfall for trial lawyers, who keep 40 percent of awards for themselves. It should come as no surprise that the nationís trial lawyers are pushing for the Kennedy-Edwards bill regardless of its impact on the cost of health care for working families. We also prefer to keep those cases in federal court, where they are currently heard, as opposed to subjecting plans to 50 widely varying interpretations of law that would further drive up costs to Americans.

In addition, we keep traditional quality of care cases, such as medical malpractice, in state courts where they belong.

Recent HMO industry studies indicate Americans may be losing interest in suing their HMOs. If substantiated, would that trend alter your determination to maintain a relatively low ceiling on damage awards?

Again, our bill has unlimited economic damages. We believe that if an individual is harmed by an HMO, they should have the right to sue for lost wages, future medical costs and other reimbursements.

Meanwhile we do support a ban on punitive damages in federal court as part of our fundamental goal of ensuring that health care remains affordable for working Americans. The Kennedy-Edwards bill gives trial lawyers a green light to raise premiums through excessive, unlimited lawsuits. Under the Kennedy-Edwards bill, personal injury attorneys will quickly gain interest in filing thousands of new lawsuits. Millions of Americans shouldn't have to lose their health insurance just so trial lawyers can go after new and larger settlements for themselves.

Senator Trent Lott has hinted at his willingness to filibuster the Democrats' bill. Do you think that will happen — or will Democrats and Republicans reach a compromise on this issue?

I look forward to a full debate on this bill and will fight to ensure doctors are making medical decisions, not HMOs or trial lawyers. I believe that we will pass a Patients' Bill of Rights this year that meets the president's principles, provides patients the protections they need and keeps health care costs affordable.