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Patients' Rights In Senate

The Senate goes to work this week on a "hot button'' issue: a patients' bill of rights.

The bill proposed by Democrats would force HMOs to pay for reasonable emergency room care, give patients a choice of doctors, and allow women direct access to obstetricians and gynecologists. It also would give patients the right to sue and collect damages when HMOs withhold treatment.

Republicans argue those measures would be too expensive and in fact, would force employers to drop coverage. They'll offer their own package of new controls on managed-care plans.

On CBS Face the Nation Sunday, Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa, said the Democratic proposal is overkill. But Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif, rejected claims that her side's bill is too expensive.

Said Santorum, "I can tell you that if patients are allowed to sue the employer for a decision an insurance company makesÂ…most corporations in America will drop their insurance and go to a plan that says, 'Here's your money. You buy your own insurance, because we are not going to be liable for a decision made by an insurance company.'"

Sen. Dianne Feinstein

But Feinstein said the bill does not allow patients to sue their employers. "That is not true," she said, "unless the employer interferes in the medical decision makingÂ… I was not one that really believed that the right to sue was really important until I found out in depth what's happening. Now I believe that really the only thing that can be done is to permit this basic right along with [a] whole series of reforms."

Face the Nation Anchor Bob Schieffer cited the salaries of people who run the HMOs, including Steven Wiggins, chairman and CEO of Oxford Health Plan ($30 million a year excluding stock options), and asked Santorum if, when chief executives make that much money, could the HMOs not do more to help the patients they serve?

Sen. Rick Santorum

Santorum, while agreeing with that premise, argued that such reform should take place on the state level, and that for the federal government to intervene would interfere with policies already in place in such states as Pennsylvania.

In anicipation of this week's Senate debate on the bill, business and insurance groups are running $750,000 worth of ads aimed at swaying Republican senators to vote against it.

The radio and television ads are running in five states where Republican senators are up for re-election next year. The goal is to ward off temptations for the five to vote for some of the more popular Democratic amendments that will be offered in the Senate debate.