Survey Finds Confusion Over Patients’ Rights Proposals

By Allison Bell

Consumers may accept a federal “patients rights” law that would include weak health plan liability provisions, according to a survey from the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health.

Forty-eight percent of the consumers under age 65 who were interviewed for the survey said they had experienced problems with their health plans in the past year, and 4% said they experienced problems that had seriously hurt their health.

Eighty-one percent want Congress to pass a “patients bill of rights,” up from 74% in April 1999.

But only 16% of the consumers said Congress should give health plan members the right to sue plans for compensation for economic losses, pain and suffering, and punitive damages.

Eighty percent said consumers should only be able to sue for full compensation for economic losses, and limited compensation for pain and suffering.

Other survey results suggest the liability issue “has gotten to be too difficult for people to understand,” said Robert Blendon, a Harvard health policy professor who worked on the survey.

Consumers appear to be so confused about liability that Democrats could probably compromise on it without getting any flak from consumers, Blendon said.

Princeton Survey Research Associations, Princeton, N.J., interviewed 1,205 adults over age 18 for the survey in July and August.

Federal law now sharply restricts the ability of members of most employer-sponsored health plans to sue the plans for anything other than the funds needed to pay for medical services.

The House and Senate have both passed separate managed care bills that would give members of employer-sponsored plans some ability to sue the plans. The House version, supported by the Republicans, would put tighter limits on the right to sue.

The House and Republican bills also include many other plan quality provisions, including sections that would set up a national “external review” system for resolving coverage disputes.

Some states already allow residents to sue state-regulated health plans, and many states have enacted plan quality provisions similar to those in the federal bills.

Surveys have found that only about half of consumers know whether their states have passed managed care plan quality bills, and one-quarter think Congress has already passed a federal patients rights bill, said Drew Altman, president of the Menlo Park, Calif.-based Kaiser foundation.

Consumers also gave relatively low marks to the importance of passing patients rights legislation: only 7% said it was the most important national health policy issue.

Thirty percent gave highest importance marks to making health care more affordable; 15% said making prescription drugs more affordable for the elderly is most important; and 13%, making Medicare more financially sound for future generations.

The health insurance industry has spent heavily on advertising campaigns meant to convince consumers that federal managed legislation would drive up health care costs and reduce access to coverage, Altman said.

But “most peoples views werent changed by the ads,” Altman said.

Only 22% of the consumers surveyed said the cost of enacting patients rights would be high enough to outweigh the benefits, and only 19% thought the legislation would make employers a lot more likely to stop offering health benefits.


Reproduced from National Underwriter Life & Health/Financial Services Edition, October 15, 2001. Copyright 2001 by The National Underwriter Company in the serial publication. All rights reserved.Copyright in this article as an independent work may be held by the author.


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