President Bush struck a deal with Georgia Republican Rep. Charles Norwood Wednesday that clears the way for House passage of a patients' bill of rights.
The compromise addresses White House concerns about potential frivolous lawsuits by limiting the conditions under which HMOs can be sued and places limits on the damages patients can win in court.
A Senate bill has already been passed but faces an almost-certain veto. Today's changes could lead to a final compromise between the House and the Senate in the fall.
"After a lot of labor and a lot of discussion, we shook hands in the Oval Office about 10 minutes ago," Bush said.
Rep. Norwood, who worked closely with Democrats in crafting the legislation, said the modified bill "does protect the patients of this country." The bill, designed to combat HMO horror stories, guarantees the right of all Americans with insurance to things like emergency room care, treatment by medical specialists and access to government-run clinical trials.
"We should not put trial lawyers first. We should not put HMOs first. We should put patients first and this hard-fought compromise gets us to that position," Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill, said.
The White House is confident that the support of Congressman Norwood means that this would pass on the floor of the House," said presidential spokesman Ari Fleischer. Officials said they were rushing to push the measure through the House on Thursday, before lawmakers are scheduled to adjourn for a month long summer vacation.
Legal liability was the sole sticking point in earning the President's support for the bill crafted by Norwood and House Democrats. Republicans favored an alternative proposal with similar limitations.
"The bottom line and goal is, we want to change the law," Norwood said. "The last time I looked, that's pretty difficult to do without the presidential signature."
House and Senate Democrats offered a muted, though disappointed, public response. "The president has finally agreed to accept the patient protections" the bill's supporters have long sought, said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass.
At the same time, he said, the proposal "continues to make these rights unenforceable and protect HMOs more than patients."
Sources said the compromise covers patients whose care is delayed or denied and have appealed the HMO's ruling to an independent appeals panel.
The GOP compromise calls for a $1.5 million cap on non-economic damages. Patients could only sue for punitive damages in cases in which an HMO had disobeyed an appeals board ruling, and even then, they could not seek more than $1.5 million. In addition, patients filing lawsuits would have a higher burden of proof in court in cases in which the HMO had heeded the review panel's order.
Norwood was with Bush at the White House at the exact time he was to have met with House members from both parties to discuss the bill. His appearance at the White House podium irritated at least one.
"A phone call would have been nice," said Rep. Greg Ganske, R-Iowa.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.