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OKLAHOMA CITY (BestWire) – The Oklahoma Legislature has approved a bill that gives patients the right to sue their health maintenance organizations for punitive damages. If signed by the governor, Oklahoma will join Texas, Georgia, California and most recently Washington in allowing such legal actions. Similar federal legislation is before Congress.

Jimmy Durant, executive director of the Oklahoma HMO Association, said the move toward HMO lawsuits is dangerous. “I think it stinks,” he said. “We already have the right to sue health plans for damages. This will allow trial lawyers to get punitive damages.” Durant said the additional liability would increase health insurers’ costs–and consumer’s premiums–by 4%. “We estimate an additional 19,000 people in Oklahoma will lose their insurance” as a result of the higher premiums, Durant said.

The Oklahoma bill, HB 2710, has passed both the Senate and the House. Sen. Brad Henry, D-Shawnee, the author of the bill, could not be reached for comment. A similar bill, SB 1206, has passed a House committee, and has yet to be heard by the full house.

Consumer advocates, including the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights in California, have supported the right to sue, saying HMOs should not enjoy a shield from liability that other industries do not have.

Employer-sponsored health insurance plans are protected from punitive damages by the federal Employee Retirement Income Security Act. In Washington, the Health Benefits Coalition continues its push to defeat patients’ bill of rights legislation now before a joint House-Senate panel, which wants to come up with a finished package by late April when Congress adjourns for its Easter/Passover break.

The coalition, comprised of employer groups, health insurers and major business organizations, wants congressional supporters of the legislation to reverse their stand in the hopes of killing or seriously watering down the pending legislation, observers said (BestWire, March 21, 2000).

(By Meg Green, associate editor, BestWeek: [email protected])

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