Vermont Sen. James Jeffords' announcement last week that he will leave the Republican Party, giving Democrats a Senate majority, is likely to accelerate action on managed-care reform, provider-payment increases and prescription-drug coverage, healthcare lobbyists said.
Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), who is co-sponsoring patients' rights legislation, is expected to take the reins of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee when Jeffords becomes an independent, which will occur no later than June 5. Jeffords, who now leads the committee, is likely to become chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works committee.
As chairman of the Senate committee, Kennedy would have more power to push through his patients' rights measure, which would give enrollees a wider right to sue in state courts than a proposal that President Bush supports.
In fact, a Kennedy spokesman said the senator plans to bring up the bill for debate as soon as possible after the Senate's Memorial Day recess, probably bypassing committee hearings and going straight to the full Senate.
"This bill's been debated for five years. (Kennedy) doesn't see the need for more hearings,"said spokesman Jim Manley.
Even when Senate Republicans held the tie-breaking vote through Vice President Dick Cheney, Senate leaders were saying they wanted to pass managed-care reform legislation this year, said Thomas Reardon, M.D., immediate past president of the American Medical Association.
"The change in leadership may accelerate that," Reardon said at a briefing last week in Washington on managed-care legislation.
Jeffords was sponsor of the patient-protection measure backed by Bush. He co-sponsored that bill with Sens. William Frist (R-Tenn.) and John Breaux (D-La.). In addition, Jeffords supported a number of Medicare provider payment relief measures this year.
Jeffords also has been a leader on federal legislation that aims to reduce medical errors, including a bill not yet introduced that would set up a voluntary reporting system for medical errors.
In addition, with the shift in power, Democrats are more likely to try to pass their own version of a Medicare prescription-drug plan, which has more-generous benefits than those in a Republican-backed bill.
A Democrat-sponsored bill probably would not include the broad Medicare restructuring that the GOP advocates.
Although Jeffords' change of alliances may ease the Democrats' route in the Senate, American Hospital Association Executive Vice President Richard Pollack said he expects Democrats' Medicare plans to run up against House Republicans and Bush.
"You're much more likely to have gridlock" on a drug benefit and broad Medicare reforms, Pollack said.
Still, if a Medicare drug benefit is passed, the increased spending could make it easier to get other Medicare legislation passed, namely a $16.2 billion package of Medicare hospital payment increases over the next five years, said Herb Kuhn, vice president of advocacy for the Premier hospital alliance.
"I think the agenda on prescription drugs will pick up and (with it) the opportunity to bid up spending," Kuhn said. "Perhaps there's some portability for that to roll over into provider payments."