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Copyright 1999 The Times-Picayune Publishing Co.  
The Times-Picayune

October 9, 1999 Saturday, ORLEANS


LENGTH: 577 words


BYLINE: By Bruce Alpert Washington bureau


Florence Corcoran's emotional account of losing her baby after an insurance company refused to pay for hospital bed rest ordered by her doctors emerged as the prime example for proponents of legislation that would allow patients to sue their health plans.

On Friday, the 46-year-old Slidell woman was getting some of the credit for the 275-151 House passage of just such a law.

"She helped humanize what at times was an arcane debate," said Ron Pollack, executive director of Families USA, one of the bill's chief backers. "Her testimony emotionally moved members of Congress in ways that hours of debate could never achieve."

Corcoran's personal tragedy became a rallying point for those who have been working for years for a patients' bill of rights with a litigation option.

In 1989, her doctors prescribed hospital bed rest during the late stages of what they considered a high-risk pregnancy. But her insurance plan would pay for only 10 hours per day of home care, and while the nurse was gone one day, the fetus went into distress and died. A few days later she came close to losing her own life.

Corcoran sued, but her case was thrown out because the 1974 Employment Retirement Income Security Act prohibits lawsuits against employer health plans.

"I don't know how to describe my feelings," Corcoran said Friday from her Slidell home. "I've fought so hard to try to get this legislation moving, and now that we've gotten to second base, I think we are getting closer to making history."

Corcoran won't benefit by the legislation; the provisions allowing lawsuits are not retroactive.

"But it would mean so much to me if just one other person doesn't have to go through what I have," Corcoran said. "I'm still fighting depression over it, and I have never been able to put this issue to rest. I still feel I was dealt a very bad deal."

The Senate passed a much narrower bill in July, which includes no new rights to file lawsuits. And many of the Senate provisions apply only to the 48 million Americans in health plans that fall under a 1974 federal benefits law.

Sen. John Breaux, D-La., said prospects are probably 50-50 for agreement on a comprehensive bill, given the opposition of most Senate Republicans.

Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., who has brought Corcoran several times to Washington to help boost the bill, said the fact that 68 House Republicans broke with their party's leadership has changed the momentum.

But Sen. Don Nickles, R-Okla., the No.2 Republican in the Senate, vowed to stop many of the provisions passed by the House. He said the bill would increase litigation to the point that insurers will have to drastically raise rates, increasing the number of uninsured Americans beyond the current 43 million.

Corcoran said she'll continue to press for passage.

"They (HMO officials) allowed a clerk thousands of miles away to make a life-threatening decision about my life and my baby's life without even seeing me and overruled five of my doctors," she said. "They don't get held accountable and that's what appalls me. I relive that all the time. Insurance companies don't answer to anybody."

But insurance groups, who predict a big increase in health-care costs if legislation like the House bill is signed into law, also vowed to fight.

"The House of Representatives took a giant step backwards in the quest for patient protection," said Karen Ignagni, president of the American Association of Health Plans.

LOAD-DATE: October 9, 1999

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