Employer protection on patients’ rights debated

The Associated Press
Saturday June 23, 2001

WASHINGTON — Republicans on Friday proposed giving employers ironclad protection from lawsuits under patients’ rights legislation, while Democrats said they were willing to limit, if not eliminate, the liability contained in their bill. 

Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., signaling a partial retreat, noted that Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, was crafting a compromise on the issue. “I think that I’m in a position to be supportive of it,” he said. Wrapping up the first week of debate on the measure, Sen. Phil Gramm proposed inserting a provision from Texas patients’ rights law that protects employers from being sued by patients. “Under Texas law employers can’t be sued, no ifs and or buts about it,” said the Texas Republican. 

The issue has emerged as a sensitive one in the debate over legislation to regulate HMOs. Republicans argue that exposure to unlimited legal liability will prompt some employers to drop the insurance coverage they provide to their workers. 

“If there’s injury, a trial lawyer is going to go after all the pockets of money that are out there, and there’s a big pocket of money out there called the employer,” said Sen. Bill Frist, R-Tenn. 

The patients’ rights measure, backed by Democratic Sens. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts and John Edwards of North Carolina and Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, allows suits against employers in some circumstances. 

A spokesman for Snowe said the Maine Republican was working with several senators, including Kennedy, Edwards and McCain, but no formal agreement has been reached. 

In general, the bill is designed to guarantee patients access to emergency care, the right to see medical specialists and the ability to select a pediatrician as a child’s primary care physician. 

There is relatively little disagreement over the extent of the protections to be offered. Major points of contention include where and when patients can bring suits, and when and how state patient protection laws should be pre-empted by the federal government. 

Democrats have made patients’ rights their top priority since winning control of the Senate. 

There was little more than skirmishing on the floor during the week, capped by a Friday’s vote on a nonbinding provision relating to clinical trials. By a vote of 89-1, lawmakers voted in favor of giving patients access to federally funded or approved clinical trials recommended by their physician.