Putting aside their personal squabbles, members of the GOP healthcare task force met last week and appear to be back on track to produce a managed-care regulation bill as early as this week.
Meanwhile, the debate in the Senate appears to be largely political.
Some GOP leaders, including Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) say they believe it is necessary for Republicans to produce their own managed-care regulation bill to satisfy public pressure. Others, including Sen. Don Nickles (R-Okla.), believe voter interest in the issue is overstated. Nickles is chairing a Senate task force similar to the one in the House that is discussing GOP strategy on managed-care regulation.
The bills are designed to correct perceived abuses by managed-care plans, such as denying access to care and restricting physician-patient communication.
Lott said last week he has directed Nickles to abandon his "no-bill" strategy and produce a GOP alternative. However, Lott did not say what should be included in the GOP package, nor did he promise to bring the measure up for a vote. Other Republicans say it is still unlikely that a Republican bill will emerge.
Nickles said last week that his group continued to work on a proposal. He added that the task force had rejected proposals that would make it easier for beneficiaries to sue a health plan if the plan delays or denies coverage. The issue of health plan liability has emerged as one of the most controversial. Plans and business groups say it will significantly increase the cost of health insurance, while supporters say it is necessary to make health plans responsible for their actions.
The issue of expanding liability in cases where the plan delayed or denied coverage is still vexing the House GOP healthcare task force as well.
According to task force Chairman J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), no decision has been made yet on a liability provision. However, other sources said it was unlikely the group would include it because it would bog down the legislation.
Other sources said the group's proposal will include medical malpractice reforms and a measure giving beneficiaries access to a private external appeals process.
The group may release a proposal as early as this week. For much of last week, that seemed a remote possibility because of fighting within the task force. Rep. Charles Norwood (R-Ga.) sent a letter to House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) demanding that Rep. William Thomas (R-Calif.) be dismissed from the task force. Thomas earlier this month called some of the task force proposals "asinine."
"We can't really tolerate that kind of outburst," an aide to Norwood said.
Gingrich declined to remove Thomas, and both he and Norwood participated in last week's meetings.
Norwood also threatened to bring his own managed-care regulation measure to the floor if the task force does not complete action soon.
"We are running out of time," a Norwood aide said.
Norwood's "Patient Access to Responsible Care Act" has more than 230 co-sponsors.