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Senate Republicans failed Tuesday to win employers full immunity from workers’ health care lawsuits as the Democratic majority protected core elements of its patients’ rights bill. The vote was 56-43 against an amendment by Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas. It would have granted employers full protection from lawsuits filed by workers or family members covered by employer-sponsored health insurance. It was the second successful Democratic defense of the bill. Last week Republicans lost a bid to attach a health care tax break to the legislation. Gramm’s proposal resembled a Texas law that shields employers while allowing patients to sue their health maintenance organizations and other health plans. Gramm said such proposals keep costly or frivolous lawsuits from prompting employers to drop workers’ insurance. “They concluded that the benefits of letting people sue the employer were much smaller than the potential cost,” Gramm said. Republican leaders, who support the views of health plans and business groups, repeatedly charged that Democrats are supporting trial lawyers and insisted their calls for suits will hurt patients instead of helping them. “Why expose people who are providing health insurance, why expose them to liability?” asked Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn. The bill, pushed by the Senate’s new Democratic majority, would guarantee HMO patients new rights such as payments for reasonable emergency room visits, mandated hospital stays for breast cancer patients and access to specialists such as gynecologists and pediatricians. Patients could also appeal decision that result in injury or death. The bill would give aggrieved patients new rights to sue in federal or state court and win damages for the harm done by health plan decisions. In opposing Gramm’s amendment, supporters of the bill said employers would be held liable only for patient injury if they expressly made a medical decision to delay or deny a needed treatment. Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., said the GOP plan was, “way outside the mainstream.” Democrats and Republicans agree on many of the same popular measures, such as the emergency room visit payments. But the two sides differ on how patients should proceed in court if things go wrong. Democrats and their supporters believe patients harmed by an HMO’s actions should be able to sue in federal or state court, where damage awards tend to be higher. Republicans insist that patients complete outside appeals before heading to federal court, rather than state court. They also would reduce the Democrats’ $5 million limit on punitive damages in federal cases and provide a better shield for employers who offer health coverage. White House aides made plans for presidential events this week aimed at increasing pressure on Democrats. President Bush, who opposes the Democratic-backed bill, is expected to make some calls to Capitol Hill and perhaps meet with lawmakers to press his case. “The president is going to continue to keep an eye on it very closely,” White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said. “He’s going to continue to reach out and talk to members of Congress about patients’ bill of rights. He’s committed to getting it done.” Edwards, a trial lawyer who has been helping negotiate a compromise, remains opposed to limiting patients to federal courts, which have huge case backlogs. Senators backed by the White House will introduce such changes later in the week. A member of that group Sen. John Breaux, D-La., said that he would try to enlist fellow conservative Democrats in their mission to limit costly lawsuits and excessive awards, and eliminate any threat the new federal law would present to existing state rules on health plan coverage. Meanwhile, House GOP leaders presented a patients’ rights bill that would also curb litigation. That bill allows a limited right to sue in state court, perhaps the first time conservative leaders have shown support for state court lawsuits. Copyright 2001 Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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