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Bush to Support Compromise Bill Granting Limited HMO Protections

By Amy Goldstein

The White House has thrown its support behind new legislation to protect Americans in HMOs, attempting to break the longstanding political stalemate over patients’ rights by offering people a restricted right to sue their health plans in federal court.

Administration officials said the bill, to be introduced Tuesday by a bipartisan group of senators who have consulted with the White House, would safeguard patients without unleashing excessive lawsuits or undermining states that have adopted similar protections.

President Bush’s endorsement of the legislation, sponsored by Sens. Bill Frist, (R-Tenn.), John Breaux (D-La.), and James M. Jeffords (R-Vt.), contrasts with the stance he adopted on two other, broader patients’ rights bills before Congress that he has vowed to veto. “We are trying to push the debate forward,” said a senior administration official. “We think it’s a really good launching pad.”

The White House and the bill’s sponsors are portraying the measure as a truer compromise than an alternative crafted three months ago by another bipartisan coalition. That version, sponsored by Sens. John McCain, (R-Ariz.), Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), and John Edwards (D-N.C.), would give patients greater latitude to sue their HMOs and insurance companies and was rejected immediately by Bush.

“My hope is that this bill encourages both sides to leave their entrenched, intransigent position and to come to the middle,” Frist said in an interview.

Safeguarding patients in managed-care plans is a popular cause that nevertheless has proven one of the most polarizing issues in Congress for several years, pitting the interests of consumers and doctors against those of employers and insurers. Bush has favored some kind of protections, although he has been generally sympathetic to the insurance industry’s arguments that too many lawsuits would drive up costs.