Senate To Square Off Over Patients' Rights Bill

By David Bozell | July 7, 2008 | 8:24 PM EDT

(CNS) - After more than a year of political maneuvering, Republicans and Democrats in the Senate are ready to begin debating the patients' bill of rights this week.

Both parties over the next four days will bring a "patients' bill of rights" to the table, though there are major differences between them.

Republicans argue that the Democratic plan is too expensive and will force employers to forgo health insurance coverage.

"The cost of health care would skyrocket and more and more people would be dropping their plans," said Sen. Don Nickles (R-OK) on Fox News Sunday. "That's not healthy for America."

Democrats intend to offer as many as 20 amendments to oppose the Republican proposals, which still give patients more freedom in dealing with health care organizations and health care plans, but is more limited than the Democrats' bill.

"This is an issue of patients vs. insurance companies. It's as simple as that," said Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA) on ABC's This Week. "The American people ought to watch this debate and be a part of it in this next week."

Republicans will almost undoubtedly pass the plan they prefer because of the 55-45 majority the party holds in the Senate. The GOP leadership pulled off a political coup by arranging for the Democratic plan be put on the table first, thereby enabling Republicans to pick apart portions of their counterparts' proposal, while making it more difficult for Democrats to fire back at the Republican bill.

If Democrats maintain a majority for any of their proposals, Republicans might include those items in the final amendment as a show of good faith.

However, Democrats are unlikely to prevail on some of the key policy differences, such as the right to sue HMOs.

While Republicans feel lawsuits only increase the cost of health care, Democrats want to allow patients to file suit against their HMOs if care is not given.

"The Kennedy bill is an invitation for lawsuits," said Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott. "You have a problem with HMOs, file a lawsuit. We don't think that is the answer."

A second sticking point remains over the power of insurance companies. Republicans feel health insurance companies should be allowed to decide whether they would give coverage to a patient, while Democrats believe those companies should be forced to cover any expense that doctors think is "medically necessary."

Democrats also want to give patients who have private insurance easier access to emergency rooms and specialists. Republicans, on the other hand, want to limit access only to the 48 million Americans who are in a federally regulated program exempt from state rules.