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Democrats Renew Push for Patient Bill of Rights

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WASHINGTON -- Democrats on Monday renewed pressure for passage of a law to give patients the right to sue their HMOs over treatment denials now that the Supreme Court has ruled against some such lawsuits in state courts.

Monday's ruling might revive a potentially powerful issue in the 2004 presidential campaign.

Three years ago, both parties and President Bush pledged support for so-called patients' rights legislation that in part allows people to appeal to courts, or to a panel of doctors, any decision by their managed care plans blocking a doctor's recommended treatment.

But the two sides could not agree on the specifics. Democrats wanted a strong right to sue in state courts, where monetary damages are usually higher than in federal courts. Republicans generally wanted limits on lawsuits and damages and to confine them to federal courts. Without an agreement, the legislation died.

But the Democrats are invigorated by Monday's ruling in which the Supreme Court said patients cannot sue in state courts for pain and suffering that resulted from decisions made by their health plan.

They see an issue against Bush, who claimed credit for a Texas patients' rights law when campaigning for president but had his administration oppose that same law before the Supreme Court.

''A real patients' bill of rights has bipartisan support, and it could become law tomorrow if the Bush administration was not standing in the way,'' presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., said.

Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., who made patients' rights his signature issue, called on Bush to back a bill he has introduced with Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Edward Kennedy, D-Mass.

''Millions of working people still have nowhere to go when HMO bureaucrats overrule their doctors' decisions,'' he said.

In the House and Senate, Republican leaders showed little interest in revisiting patients' rights bills. They say Democrats are driven by a desire to help lawyers and that opening up health plan decisions to greater litigation will cause insurance premiums to jump.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., a surgeon, sees little chance of action this year, spokesman Nick Smith said. ''We only have a few legislative days left . . . and there's been no indication folks have moderated their views, in terms of who we're going to put first -- trial lawyers and their interest, or patients,'' Smith said.

House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., is more concerned about covering the uninsured than managed care disputes, spokesman John Feehery said. ''Getting more lawsuits into the legal process is probably the worst way to help the uninsured,'' he said.

The issue puts GOP leaders at odds with a frequent ally, the American Medical Association.

''Managed care plans can now practice medicine without a license,'' AMA President John Nelson said. ''Managed care will now have very little incentive to approve expensive but medically necessary treatments.''

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© Copyright 2004 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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