But Democrats and some Republicans said it stood little chance of passage in its current form, accusing the president and his Republican allies in the Senate of catering to the interests of health maintenance organizations (HMOs) and insurers rather than Americans in need of care.
"Like previous Republican proposals, it is an attempt to block reform, not end HMO abuse," said Sen. Edward Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat, who has joined forces with Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, and Sen. John Edwards, a North Carolina Democrat, in pushing a more far-reaching bill without such strict limits on lawsuits, despite opposition from industry groups and the White House.
Sponsored by Republican Sens. Bill Frist of Tennessee and Jim Jeffords of Vermont, as well as Sen. John Breaux, a Louisiana Democrat, the White House-backed bill would require patients to exhaust an independent medical review process before taking disputes against HMOs and health insurers to federal court for damages.
Once in court, damage awards under the bill would be capped at $500,000, Breaux said. Under current law, patients have little legal recourse against health plans for decisions about treatment that result in injury or death.
"The Breaux, Frist, Jeffords bipartisan patients bill of rights meets the six principles that the president announced and that he believes are vital," said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer. In contrast to other proposals, he said the Frist bill "does not turn hospital rooms into courtrooms."
But Senate Democrats said the bill lacked bipartisan support. It also faced opposition in the House.
"If it is brought up in the House, I will personally exhaust every effort to defeat it," said Rep. Charlie Norwood, a Georgia Republican who supports Kennedy and McCain. "This bill protects HMOs, not patients."
Like Frist's bill, the measure proposed by McCain, Kennedy and Edwards would ensure that all 167 million Americans with private health insurance had access to emergency and specialty care.
In contrast to Frist's proposal, McCain and Kennedy would permit jury awards of up to $5 million in federal court and unlimited punitive damages under state law.
The higher caps have drawn fire from insurance companies and health plan providers, who warned that the bill would trigger a flood of "frivolous" lawsuits, pushing up health care costs. President Bush, in turn, threatened to veto the bill.
Undeterred, McCain, Kennedy and Edwards said they may propose their patients' bill of rights as an amendment to the Senate's far-reaching education reform plan, Bush's top legislative priority.
Norwood urged the White House to negotiate a "true bipartisan" compromise: "The White House cannot affrd to waste any more time on bills like this that cannot pass both houses; they need to devote all available time and resources to true bipartisan negotiations that we have started."
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