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Copyright 1999 The Atlanta Constitution  
The Atlanta Journal and Constitution

October 7, 1999, Thursday, Home Edition

SECTION: News; Pg. 14A

LENGTH: 567 words

HEADLINE: On Politics;
Patients Bill of Rights just won't let go

BYLINE: Tom Baxter, Staff


"Dead on arrival" was the prognosis last year when Georgia Republican Charlie Norwood and Michigan Democrat John Dingell introduced a House bill that would allow patients to sue the companies that run their managed care plans and name their doctors.

To some it was effrontery for the Augusta dentist, now in his third House term, to defy Republican orthodoxy so openly on touchy issues. With so much insurance company money lined up to stoke the campaign against it, the Norwood-Dingell measure was an at-risk bill.

But the patient has proven to be quite robust.

Even as the so-called Patients Bill of Rights measure awaited a vote this week with enough votes on paper to give it a majority, grave concerns were being voiced over its survival. But at this stage of the treatment, it was clear that simply bludgeoning it to death, the first strategy employed, wasn't going to work.

Instead President Clinton, who supports the bill, warned Wednesday from the Rose Garden that it was under threat from a "poison pill." The malady might have been described as a legislative aneurysm. The bill lacked a cost analysis stating where the money was going to be raised, and while the bill's sponsors had one prepared, a rule prohibited them from adding it as an amendment.

This legislative maneuvering could drive Democrats away from the bill and affect the vote, expected today, while other procedural tactics could mean it doesn't come to a vote at all. Whatever its fate, however, Norwood-Dingell has had a profound effect. At a time when there aren't many contenders, this bill has had the greatest impact of any written by a Georgian in the last few years.

That became evident Tuesday when House Speaker Dennis Hastert threw his support to a Republican alternative bill that would allow a more limited procedure for suing HMOs in federal rather than state courts.

While expressing regret at having to do so, Hastert became the first Republican leader to endorse the idea of allowing patients to sue. A gulf of practical differences separate the two bills, but the dentist has already won the philosophical ground.

The condition of the political ground could be judged by the keen attention of all the television networks to a breakfast fund-raiser this week at which insurance lobbyists arrived with checks for Hastert and others. Not that such scenes aren't common these days, but the timing made this a photo-op for campaign finance reform.

There was more proof of the impact of Norwood-Dingell in the debate that was penciled in ahead of the one over patient rights: the problems of America's uninsured, a subject that has suffered for attention since the demise of the Clinton health care package.

Democrats and Republicans divided sharply over the legislation, which passed on a party-line vote Wednesday. The bill is designed to make health care more affordable for the uninsured through a system of tax breaks. But scheduling the debate on this bill in an attempt to deflect the subject from patient's rights only serves to focus attention on health care as a larger issue.

The Clinton health care debacle helped to send many in the Republican majority --- including Charlie Norwood --- to Washington. It also left a host of issues, which the vote on the often battered but highly resilient Norwood- Dingell bill will only partially resolve.


Rep. Charlie Norwood

LOAD-DATE: October 7, 1999

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