WASHINGTON – With a showdown looming on patients' rights legislation, President Bush telephoned a key Republican lawmaker Monday and prodded him to agree to a compromise that the White House can accept.
One GOP source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Bush told Georgia Rep. Charles Norwood that as a Republican, he should align himself with the White House on the issue and not with the Democrats.
Norwood's spokesman declined comment on the phone call. He said the congressman planned to meet Tuesday morning with other key supporters of his bill, including Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., and Sens. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., and John McCain, R-Ariz.
Separately, House Speaker Dennis Hastert talked with Norwood during the day, and said the congressman had asked him for a specific date when the issue would come up for a vote. Hastert, R-Ill., said he told Norwood he was ready to bring the bill up quickly if there was an agreement with the president. "I said if he's ready to go this week, I'll go this week," Hastert said.
Bush's call to Norwood came at a pivotal moment in negotiations on patients' rights legislation, which passed the Senate earlier this year.
The measure is designed to provide patients new rights in dealing with HMOs and other insurance companies, including better access to emergency room care and treatment by medical specialists. While there is a broad agreement on the types of patient protections to be included, there is disagreement over the extent to which patients should be permitted to sue their HMOs and over the size of damages for which insurers should be liable.
Norwood and most Democrats favor a bill with broader access to courts, including state courts, where trial lawyers feel they are more likely to prevail. They say the right to sue is essential if the new protections are to be meaningful.
Bush and most Republicans prefer to send most suits to federal courts, and to limit damages. They say patients are more concerned with getting treatment than filing suits, and that the Democratic bill would make insurance more costly, causing some people to lose coverage.
Norwood has been discussing possible compromises with the White House in recent days, including a potential hybrid system in which some suits could be filed in state court under federal rules.
Last Friday, Norwood and Democrats drew up a point-by-point critique that said, "We believe that when HMOs and health insurers make medical decisions that were traditionally made by physicians and other health care providers, they should be subject to the same standard of accountability as physicians and other providers."
The two-page paper identified the plan as a "White House proposal," a characterization that administration officials disputed. One source said Bush himself made that point in his conversation with Norwood.
Republican sources familiar with the conversation, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Bush pressed Norwood in highly personal terms to support the White House's bid to rewrite the legislation so Republicans could support it.
Norwood has said repeatedly in recent days he hopes to reach a compromise, but has said it must be bipartisan. Some House Republicans say they doubt that Dingell, Kennedy and other Democrats will agree to compromise, since the Democrat-backed bill has already passed the Senate.
Bush has threatened to veto the Senate-passed bill, but has said he would sign an alternative, advanced by Rep. Ernie Fletcher, R-Ky., that gives HMOs more protection from lawsuits.