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January/February 1999

Patients’ Bill of Rights Lives

President Clinton looks to AFSCME for support


The Patients’ Bill of Rights died in a blaze of partisanship before Congress adjourned for the November elections. But President Clinton, vowing not to give up, has turned to AFSCME and other groups represented on the White House advisory commission on health care protections to help resurrect the important legislation in the next congressional session.

On Nov. 2, the day before the congressional elections, Clinton invited to a White House conference special guests: AFSCME Pres. Gerald W. McEntee, Sec.-Treas. William Lucy and Dr. Robert Weinmann, president of the Union of American Physi-cians and Dentists/AFSCME in California. There Clinton announced that he remains committed to the passage of consumer health protections.

The President chastised Republicans for refusing to act on the health care legislation, saying it was a “cynical” display of partisanship. “Health care protections are not a partisan issue in any community in America outside of Washington, D.C.,” he said.

Speaking to the need for patient protections, Weinmann gave a personal example of how managed care is endangering patients: A woman went to him with a severe headache, which he believed was symptomatic of a serious problem requiring immediate hospitalization. Because the woman feared she would not be admitted under her HMO’s rules, Weinmann stayed with her until the HMO had approved her care and she was safe in a hospital bed. He didn’t know until later that her HMO reversed itself, forcing her to get up and go to another hospital for care.

Once there, the woman again was turned away because the HMO again changed its mind. With nowhere to turn, the woman took her treatment into her own hands, “at a high risk to herself,” according to Weinmann. Fortunately, she survived.

Following Weinmann’s presentation, Frances Jennings of Andover, Mass., told how months of treatment delays and bungled bureaucratic decision-making by an HMO resulted in the death of her cancer-stricken husband.

Clinton noted that these “are not exceptional stories,” that there are “too many stories where loved ones are lost through denial or delay,” in today’s managed health care environment.

The President made it clear that he believes managed care can help to contain costs and deliver quality care, but that laws need to be changed to hold health care providers accountable when they harm patients.

The Patients’ Bill of Rights includes provisions to:

  • ensure that medical decisions are made by doctors;

  • give patients access to specialists and emergency room treatment;

  • keep patients’ medical information private;

  • ensure that doctors, nurses and other health care workers can advocate for their patients and raise quality concerns without fear of retaliation;

  • ensure that patients are not forced to change doctors in the middle of treatment; and

  • ensure HMO accountability by making it possible for patients to sue an HMO when they are harmed.

Clinton announced that through executive action he has extended these patients’ rights to federal government workers and to all those who receive their health care through federally funded programs. “Not covered, however,” he emphasized, “are the remaining 160 million people enrolled in managed care plans” who need Congress to pass legislation necessary to extend those rights.

By Catherine Barnett Alexander