'Life-or-Death' Battle Over HMOs Is Set to Begin

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Get set for another big-time, partisan arm-wrestling contest on Capitol Hill. Trying to get the Democratic arm up first, before Senate debate begins on Monday, President Clinton took the occasion while touring California on Friday to plug his party’s version of a patients’ bill of rights against HMOs. Mincing no words, the President said the issue was “whether some people live and some people die.” The President’s proposal would, among other things, broaden access to health care specialists and emergency room services, and, most controversially, would give patients the right to sue and collect damages when HMOs withhold treatment. Republicans have a more limited no-litigation proposal in view, which they claim will not overregulate or drive up costs.

“This is going to be yet another 2000 election exercise with a lot of bickering, spitting and shin-kicking,” says TIME congressional correspondent John Dickerson. Republicans will charge that the Democrats are once again trying to pay off the trial-lawyer lobby, while Democrats will accuse Republicans of protecting the pockets of big-business insurance companies. There is the possibility, however, that the exercise could yield some sort of a deal. Both parties know that improving HMOs resonates well with the public. “The President believes he has hit upon a classic poll-tested proposal,” says TIME White House correspondent Jay Branegan. And the Republicans believe they have a good, cost-conscious counterproposal. Both parties also think they have staked out identifiable, responsible positions on the issue, which they will be able to take to the voters even after sealing a deal. “Next week should provide an interesting legislative test over whether the parties are able to compromise,” says Branegan.