With the Senate on the verge of passing a Democrat-backed patients' rights bill at deadline, attention shifted to the White House and the House.
President Bush was unable to influence debate in the Senate as new Majority Leader Thomas Daschle (D-S.D.) successfully spearheaded his first agenda item since taking over last month. Now Bush, who earlier threatened to veto the bill sponsored by Sens. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), John Edwards (D-N.C.), and John McCain (R-Ariz.), is left to figure out how far he wants to compromise on giving patients the right to sue their health plans over coverage decisions. "The president agrees with 90% of what the Senate is doing," said Ari Fleischer, Bush's press secretary.
Early last week Bush threw his support behind a new patients' rights bill introduced by House Republican leaders. The bill, crafted by primary-care physician Rep. Ernie Fletcher (R-Ohio), represents the first time Bush has accepted allowing limited lawsuits against health plans in state courts.
Democrats worry that Republicans will try to kill patients' rights legislation for the year when it gets to conference committee, where the Senate and House bills are reconciled.
Senate Republicans tried early last week to derail the Democrats' bill with amendments that weighed it down with new spending requirements or weakened it with blanket immunity for employers, but they appeared to concede defeat by mid-week. The GOP finished the week by negotiating compromises to block liability for all employers except those involved in administering their own health plans and to require that patients exhaust administrative appeals processes before they file lawsuits.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear a case on whether state laws that guarantee patients an independent external appeal for their complaints against their HMO are valid.