NU Online News Service, June 18, 2:05 p.m. ? Washington

The battle over patients’ bill of rights legislation reentered the spotlight last week both in the Senate and the House.

In the Senate, the new Democratic leadership is expected to bring the controversial bill S. 283 to the floor, possibly as early as this week.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., identified the legislation, which is co-sponsored by Sens. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and John McCain, R-Ariz., as a top legislative priority.

Meanwhile, in the House, Rep. Charlie Norwood, R-Ga., one of the leaders of patients’ bill of rights legislation in the House, announced that he would formally support the counterpart to S. 283 in the House, numbered H.R. 526.

Norwood had been holding off on formally endorsing H.R. 526 while trying to work out a compromise.

However, he says, the new momentum behind the legislation in the Senate led him to co-sponsor the House version.

“While the issue was still on the backburner, I felt we had time to try to create a bill that would have universal support from Congress and the White House,” Norwood says in a statement.

But now that the issue has emerged, he says, everyone has to make a choice on what to support.

He calls H.R. 526/S. 283 the only legislation “that guarantees a patient will find justice if they are injured or killed from improperly denied care.”

Meanwhile, two prominent members of the House expressed concerns over the new momentum for H.R. 526.

“We are deeply disturbed at renewed efforts to introduced unlimited lawsuits into America’s health care system, and we fear such actions can only lead to further gridlock on patients’ rights,” say Reps. John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Sam Johnson, R-Texas, in a joint statement.

They say that Americans don’t want unlimited lawsuits. Rather, Boehner and Johnson say, Americans want assurances they will get the care they need when they need it.

“This requires a balanced approach built on sound public policy, not a divisive approach fueled by political considerations and special interest priorities,” they say.

Boehner chairs the House Committee on Education and the Workforce.

Industry groups are also reentering the fray.

The Health Insurance Association of America, Washington, is expected to release a legal analysis of the liability provisions of S. 283 this week suggesting that the legislation would allow virtually unlimited damages both in federal and in state courts.

The Health Benefits Coalition, Washington, which represents employers, announced a new series of television, radio and print advertisements aimed at the liability provisions in S. 283.

Meanwhile, the American Medical Association, Chicago, which supports S. 283, praised Norwood for supporting the House version of the bill.

“This is another big step toward getting a meaningful patients’ rights bill signed into law this year,” Thomas Reardon, the AMA’s immediate past president, said.

“With this bill in place, millions of patients finally will be protected from HMOs that unnecessarily delay or deny needed care,” he says.

Two major patient protection bills are currently before Congress. While there are numerous differences between them, the major difference involves liability.

Under S. 283/H.R. 526, health plans can be sued under state law for damages resulting in personal injury or wrongful death due to an adverse coverage decision.

Employers could also be held liable if they directly participated in the decision.

By contrast, legislation that is supported by President Bush, S. 889, would place certain constraints on lawsuits.

Under S. 889, a decisionmaker can be held liable under a federal cause of action for a failure to comply with an independent medical review decision that results in substantial harm or death to the patient.

While the patient could recover both economic and noneconomic damages, the latter would be capped at $500,000.