Copyright 2000 The Denver Post Corporation
November 5, 2000 Sunday 1ST EDITION
SECTION: PERSPECTIVE; Pg. K-03
LENGTH: 707 words
Another win for trial lawyers
BYLINE: Al Knight,
It has been largely unnoticed that Congress
won't be passing a Patients' Bill of Rights this
year. That's a surprise. Not too many months ago, it was considered a
sure bet that President Clinton and his Democratic allies in Congress
would be able to force the Republican-controlled Congress to act this
The prevailing theory was that the issue would
become one of the most important in the current election campaign
and that the Republicans would have to compromise and approve
some version of the legislation before the election.
President Al Gore, the Democratic presidential nominee, tried
mightily tomake a national issue of HMOs, claiming the major insurers
are insensitive to patient interests and should be subject to greater
In the end, however, it wasn't enough to make
anything happen, although negotiations over the issue continued until
late last month when it became obvious that the measure was dead
for this session. In the lame-duck session of Congress that
will follow Tuesday's general election, there won't be either time
or inclination to revive the
issue. What is
remarkable about this outcome is the reason it occurred.
effort to pass a bill collapsed largely because the country's trial
lawyers and their allies in Congress refused to accept any version of
the bill that would have limited the right of plaintiffs to sue
health maintenance organizations. The Republican leadership refused
to accept any bill that didn't contain some limitation.
Republican congressional leaders had offered a compromise
that would have required an aggrieved patient to first submit a
complaint to an independent panel. The panel would rule whether the
HMO had acted improperly. Private lawsuits would have been permitted
only if the panel ruled the HMO had acted improperly.
The trial lawyers'
lobby insisted that there be no limitation on the right to sue.
According to the Wall Street Journal, the lawyers were supported in
this position by an unlikely ally, the American Medical Association.
The right to sue is likely to remain a major sticking point
in this issue, regardless of who is elected president. Texas Gov.
George W. Bush has taken the position that there ought to be an
administrative review before a case can be filed in court. He has
pointed out that Texas has such a provision, and claims that it has
cut down on the number of lawsuits while also making sure the patient
has a right to appeal an insurer's adverse decision.
Even if Gore - who
supports the trial lawyers' position - is elected president, the
opposing point of view will be carried forward by the Republican
It should be pointed out that in the early
days of HMOs, there were admittedly some abuses in which patients'
claims were denied. In the most egregious cases, the insurer
simply stone-walled the patient or set up an in-house arbitration
system designed to greatly delay consideration of patient claims.
Publicity about such abuses, especially in California, led to
policy changes by most insurers.
What remains to be decided in
Washington is which of these opposing interests will blink first?
There is a kind of delicious irony in the fact that it was
the trial lawyers, longtime friends and financial supporters of the
Democratic Party, who are principally responsible for delaying
passage of a Patients' Bill of Rights. By their
insistence on an unlimited right to litigate patient complaints, they
have delayed the enactment of a statute that was supposed to quickly
aid millions of Americans who are enrolled
Trial lawyers, given the choice of aiding these patients or helping
themselves to a new and rich area of litigation, unsurprisingly chose
to aid themselves.
They are betting that they may be able to get
what they want from Congress next year and have thus refused
the half-a-loaf offer available now. Next Tuesday's election will
help to determine if their gamble pays off.
(email@example.com) is a member of The Denver Post editorial board.
LOAD-DATE: November 07, 2000