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A Patient Worth Saving

January 13, 2002

Events have once again pushed the beleaguered patients' bill of rights off the legislative agenda. Some in Washington say the issue is dead. Not likely.

Critical though the war on terrorism is and will remain, it won't be long before Americans notice that inadequate health care cuts down far more people in the United States than Al Qaeda could dream of slaying, and they'll again clamor for some simple protections.

For years, Congress has kicked around legislation to safeguard men, women and children enrolled in health maintenance organizations. Last session, the House and Senate each passed bills that would assure HMO members' access to specialists, their right to appeal treatment decisions to independent experts and their right to participate in experimental trials of new drugs and procedures.

The Democrat-driven Senate bill would also allow patients who feel they have been abused by their health providers to sue for punitive damages in state courts, where limits on the awards are generally fairly generous. The House bill, backed mainly by Republicans, would send most of those cases to federal court and limit how much money an aggrieved patient could collect. President Bush was a fan of the latter approach. Everyone involved continued to wrestle toward compromise. But, as Times health writer Charles Ornstein reported Thursday, even the plodding progress came to a halt Sept. 11.

It's no surprise that politicians, fatigued by America's all-too-real combat role, have little enthusiasm for returning to this sometimes brutal and exhausting domestic fight. Eventually, though, they will have to.

The factory worker's baby whose last hope is a promising experimental surgery; the architect whose overworked doctor botched a breast exam; the grandfather whose HMO is unwilling to spring for that "unnecessary" hip implant--such people will demand attention in the coming election cycles.

The patient's bill of rights is on life support. Astute legislators of various stripes--from Georgia Republican Rep. Charlie Norwood, who pioneered an early version of the bill, to California's own Sen. Barbara Boxer, a Democrat--stand poised with legislative defibrillators, ready to revive some compromise version of reforms that tens of millions of American HMO members would rather not see die from neglect.

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