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Patients' Rights Deal Progresses


WASHINGTON — A leading backer of patients' rights legislation reported progress Monday on reaching a compromise with President Bush, improving the prospects that the stalled legislation could pass the House later this week.

"We think we're closer to a deal," said John Stone, press secretary for Rep. Charlie Norwood (R-Ga.). "Charlie is optimistic that we can get a compromise done by the end of the week."

Stone would not provide additional details on the talks but said Bush and Norwood are still trying to find common ground on contentious provisions in the bill that would make it easier for patients to sue health plans.

It was not clear that other co-sponsors of the patients' bill shared Norwood's optimism. Last week, these lawmakers had all but ruled out accepting concessions the White House made on the liability issue, calling them unworkable.

Monday night, representatives for several of the other co-sponsors said they were not aware of any new developments that would change the sponsors' assessment of the White House offering. The group of lawmakers, which includes Reps. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.) and Greg Ganske (R-Iowa), was expected to meet again today.

Norwood spoke with Bush on Monday morning after staff members for the congressman and the president spent much of the weekend in discussions. Scott McClellan, a White House spokesman, would say only that "we're still pleased with the progress we're making."

The talks between Bush and Norwood are aimed at resolving one of the key sticking points in the patients' rights debate: Whether patients ought to have access to state courts, in addition to federal courts, when suing health plans over denials or delays of treatment.

The House bill, like a similar measure the Senate already has passed, would grant that access. Bush, in threatening to veto the legislation, has argued that its liability provisions would drive up health care costs. But when it became clear that House Republicans didn't have the votes to defeat the measure last week, Bush reopened talks with Norwood in an effort to avoid an embarrassing defeat.

Bush, according to Norwood, agreed to allow suits in state courts--generally considered more favorable to plaintiffs--as long as the suits were tried under a single federal standard.

Proponents of the patients' bill rejected the approach, saying health plans should not be treated differently than doctors, who can be held liable in state courts under state laws for their treatment and decisions.

But Norwood, a loyal Republican making an uncomfortable break with his party on this issue, is under intense pressure to strike a deal with Bush. In their talk Monday, the president encouraged Norwood to agree to the compromise, sources familiar with the conversation said.

Some House Democrats have quietly expressed concern that Norwood will abandon his co-sponsors and cut a separate deal with Bush that could win support of House Republicans eager to get the thorny issue of patients' rights behind them.

But Stone, Norwood's spokesman, said the lawmaker would not jeopardize his alliance with Dingell and others with whom he has worked for years on a patients' bill.

And while proclaiming Norwood's optimism that a deal can be reached with Bush, Stone left plenty of wiggle room, allowing that it's "just as likely" the talks will fizzle.

GOP House leaders yanked the bill off the House schedule last week. But they have insisted they still would like to bring the measure to the floor this week, before Congress adjourns for its August recess.

Beyond allowing patients new power to sue health plans, the bill would carve out an array of new rights, including guaranteed access to specialists and emergency room care.

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