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Seattle Post-Intelligencer

President Bush would be unwise to veto patients’ bill of rights legislation. It’s clearly needed and has popular support.

His veto threat likely marks not the end of the bill’s chances but the beginning of final negotiations. Bush’s tough words provided cover for Republicans in the Senate to press for concessions from the Democrat-backed bill. The veto threat may offer cover to Democrats too, freeing them to give ground on a couple of the bill’s most radical elements.

Forty-five states, including Washington, have some form of patient protection law, but a uniform federal standard would be better for patients and HMOs alike than a patchwork of varying state laws.

The patients’ bill of rights would give patients more power to deal with health maintenance organizations, such as guaranteeing access to emergency treatment, medical specialists and other types of care. Raising the most controversy is a provision that would lift the 27-year-old congressional ban on patients suing HMOs.

Evidence that Bush’s veto threat is just that comes from his own state of Texas. Since 1997, Texas has had patient protection legislation similar to that now proposed in Congress. According to the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, only six lawsuits have been filed under the Texas law. Meanwhile, health insurance premiums in Texas have risen more slowly than the national average.

Amid Bush’s veto verbiage was the allegation that the federal legislation “would encourage costly and unnecessary litigation that would seriously jeopardize the ability of many Americans to afford health care coverage.” But if that hasn’t been the result in Texas. Indeed, the president campaigned on the merits of the Texas patient protection law.

California has had a right-to-sue law since January and not a single lawsuit has been filed under it. Records indicate that the threat of lawsuit, however, is encouraging HMOs to settle up with their patients.

The Kennedy-McCain proposal may go too far for moderates of both parties by allowing patients to seek punitive damages and in allowing lawsuits to be filed even before the appeal of an HMO coverage rejection has been completed. (By law, punitive damages cannot be awarded.)

The right to sue for recovery of damages, however, should be fundamental. It is a right that Americans have been inappropriately denied by Congress for nearly three decades.

Consumer Watchdog
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