GOPers Buckle on Patients' Rights

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The insurance-industry lobbyists are a beaten bunch. Sensing a wave of popular anger at penny-pinching HMOs (and fearing another p.r. drubbing by President Clinton), enough House Republicans bucked their leadership to defeat three waterings-down of a patients’ rights bill in the House Thursday. This new majority then passed the toughest of the four versions – which would give patients unprecedented rights in suing their HMOs — by a 275-151 vote. Clinton wasted little time in declaring it a victory for patients, America, greedy trial lawyers (just kidding — he left them out of it) and even bipartisanship. "I want to congratulate members of both parties," he told reporters solemnly, "for helping Americans in the face of considerable pressure to do otherwise." TIME Washington columnist Margaret Carlson says it was inevitable. "Health care, despite the failure of Hillary-care, is now apple pie and motherhood," she says. "And the centrist Republicans finally came around to that."

The winning bill, sponsored by Georgia GOPer Charlie Norwood and Michigan Democrat John Dingell, allows patients to sue in state courts – or take the matter to an outside panel — if a benefit is denied or delayed. The bill also requires that plans pay for needed specialists and for routine care associated with clinical trials. It’d be an immediate blessing for patients and their lawyers alike – if it had a chance of becoming law. Sitting in the Senate is a bill that’s far weaker than its new House counterpart. It has no new rights to sue and nixes a host of other patient protections, and the two bills have to be combined – probably sometime next summer. Expect some bitter negotiations and a redoubling of businesses’ and insurance companies’ efforts to have the legislation declawed. It’ll then be up to the GOP leadership whether they want to ride this wave or let it drown them, just in time for the election.