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House Republicans are preparing bills to address the regulation of HMOs and other health plans, anticipating a battle with Senate Democrats over new patients’ rights. Three House committees are working on legislation to guarantee patients access to needed treatments and medicines without encouraging lawsuits against insurers, Speaker Dennis Hastert said Thursday. Hastert, R-Ill., said he directed lawmakers to prepare plans for circulation as the Senate opens debate next week. The House GOP plan also will focus on bringing health coverage to uninsured Americans. “We can’t talk about patients’ bill of rights unless we have patients,” Hastert said in a telephone interview. “You can’t have patients unless people can get access to health care.” House leaders, supported by insurance companies and the Bush administration, contend that exposing HMOs to lawsuits from consumers will drive up the cost of health care and ultimately deprive people of coverage. The increased Republican efforts follows Wednesday’s announcement that at least a dozen GOP lawmakers were endorsing a House plan that mirrors the Senate Democratic version. These Republicans support a broad right for patients to sue their HMOs in state or federal court if they are harmed by denials or delays in medical treatment. Also Thursday, White House officials met with senators, and an HMO trade group began a television campaign warning that suits could force small businesses to cut health insurance benefits. In the meeting, senior administration officials said President Bush welcomed some compromise, but would stick to his main principles. He has said he would veto any proposal that would encourage patients to sue plans rather than resolve disputes in independent reviews run by outside experts. “I think it would be just a terrible mistake to pass a bill that the president would have to veto when we’re so close,” Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson said. He attended the meeting with nine senators representing three points of view on patients’ rights. After a five-year fight, lawmakers on all sides of the issue are once again concerned that Congress will end the year without acting on any of the bills. Consumer groups and doctors, who oppose some insurers’ cost-cutting measures, are also pushing for action. “Americans are suffering because we’re not getting a patients’ bill of rights,” said Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., a chief sponsor of the leading Senate bill. In the House, tax-writing Ways and Means Committee will examine how to use credits to help poor Americans pay their insurance premiums; the Education and the Workforce Committee will study the federal pensions law that shields health plans from state court suits; and the Energy and Commerce Committee will seek to bolster the independent review system. Copyright 2001 Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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