The chances of enacting a national healthcare reform law rose last week after House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) acknowledged that Congress probably will pass such legislation.
Gingrich's speech at the American Medical Association's national leadership meeting in Washington signaled that Republican congressional leadership, which generally has opposed healthcare reform legislation, may yet acquiesce in the face of election-year politics.
Characterizing some leading patient-protection legislation as a backdoor attempt to pass Clinton's failed 1994 healthcare reform plan, GOP leaders have enlisted insurers and the business sector to lobby against such legislation (See related story, p. 8).
But after his speech, Gingrich told reporters he probably will support a bill due out in a few weeks from a GOP healthcare task force led by Rep. J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.). Although the task force hasn't released specifics about the bill it's developing, it is expected to exclude controversial issues such as enterprise liability that are included in a bill sponsored by Rep. Charlie Norwood (R-Ga.).
Despite his expression of support, Gingrich told the AMA conference that healthcare reform legislation probably is not a good idea.
"It's going to add to litigation, and it's going to add to bureaucracy," Gingrich said. "We're going to end up with government bureaucrats watching over insurance bureaucrats watching over doctors."
Gingrich's reluctant support for healthcare-reform legislation followed President Clinton's speech to AMA conference attendees. Clinton called for AMA support for a patient "bill of rights" approved last year by a White House quality commission.
"You must impress upon the Congress the urgency of passing this legislation," Clinton said. "It is just a question of mustering the will to get the job done and going through some of the very difficult issues around the edges that have to be resolved. But there is utterly no reason not to do this this year."
While embracing the "consumer bill of rights and responsibilities," as passed by the presidential Advisory Commission on Consumer Protection and Quality in the Health Care Industry, the White House has not sent specific legislative language to Capitol Hill and is not expected to do so. Democratic leadership probably will incorporate concepts from the bill of rights into legislation it develops.
The AMA, meanwhile, has endorsed the bill of rights but has yet to support any specific bill (March 9, p. 2).
Following the comments by Clinton and Gingrich last week, Richard Deem, the AMA's vice president of federal affairs and coalitions, said passing patient protections is "achievable because the American public wants some balance and fairness in this system."
In a related development, the White House quality commission, in its final report published last week, called for a public debate on whether employer health benefit plans ought to be held liable for patient harm resulting from inappropriate denials of care. The commission did not take sides on the issue, however.