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GOP Softening on Patients' Rights?

Senate Republican leader Trent Lott gave ground today in the debate over a patients' bill of rights.

CBS correspondent Stephanie Lambidakis tells us the concession could lead to a breakthrough compromise.

It is a critical test of the Democrats' new majority powers--passing a patients' bill of rights to give people the power to sue their HMOs (health maintenance organizations).

Republicans have been fighting the provision, which would allow patients to sue in state courts where jury awards tend to be high, but today Lott unexpectedly signaled a willingness to compromise.

"You can dig in and have trench warfare or say, 'Look, there's an area where we need to do some things and do it properly.' We have a long way to go but it is possible," says Lott.

The parties disagree on another issue as well--whether to place a limit on jury awards. Democrats put the cap at $5 million, Republicans at $500,000.

Republican senator Bill Frist of Tennessee, author of a bill backed by the White House, claims the Democrats' plan would only enrich trial lawyers, drive up the cost of insurance, and trigger a presidential veto.

"He's made it very clear that first and foremost he wants patient protections but what he does not want is frivolous lawsuits that drives people to the ranks of the uninsured," says Frist.

A co-sponsor of the bill, senator Edward Kennedy (Democrat, of Massachusetts) argues that giving patients the right to sue would have the opposite effect.

"The idea of having this provision is to avoid the suits, because what happens is, the HMOs behave better," says Kennedy.

But there is widespread concern that big jury awards would drive up rates so much that companies would cancel their insurance plans.

Democrats today say they're open to compromise, as well.

"I'm open to any further conversations about how we might improve it, but I do think that we've got to have a bill that matters, that means something," says Senate majority leader Tom Daschle (Democrat, of South Dakota).

If they can get the patients' bill of rights through Congress, Democrats will be emboldened to launch their next healthcare priority--a prescription drug benefit for the elderly, which faces stiff opposition from the drug companies and the White House.
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