Patients' Rights Bill Would Not Cure Ills of US Health Care System

The right hand of Congress clearly doesn’t know what the left hand is doing. In one room, congressional committees are holding hearings on the plight of 38 million uninsured Americans and how to help them get health coverage.

But in the back rooms, negotiations continue on a Patients’ Bill of Rights that even supporters acknowledge will drive up health care costs and increase the number of uninsured.

Despite public apathy about the bill, politicians just can’t seem to ignore legislation with a motherhood-and-apple pie title like the Patients’ Bill of Rights. The White House continues to negotiate with Senator Ted Kennedy (D-MA) to complete work on the bill, whose main purpose is to give patients the right to sue their insurance companies if they don’t get the care they want and need.

But the bill’s dark side is becoming clearer all the time.

The biggest proponents of the bill – doctors themselves – would be among those hurt the most if it were to pass. The bill would give lawyers a blank check to “sue the chart.” That means that anyone involved in a patient’s care could be sued, even if they were not themselves responsible for any harm done.

A doctor who referred an injured patient to another doctor who referred the patient to another doctor who admitted the patient to the hospital and the employer who paid for the health insurance – all could be drawn is a potential defendants.

The main people who will gain more rights are lawyers.

Attorney Richard Scruggs of tobacco litigation fame and fortune just couldn’t wait for the bill to pass to start the lawsuits rolling. He and David Boies, who defended Al Gore in Florida in the 2000 election controversy, are making progress on a class action lawsuit against major health plans like Aetna and Humana on federal civil racketeering laws.

They claim that HMOs’ efforts to control costs have denied patients full access to care, and the patients therefore have been wronged. A federal court in Miami has agreed, giving them the right to proceed with the case.

As many problems as the U.S. health care system does have, opening the floodgates to even more lawsuits through the legal authority of the Patients’ Bill of Rights would drive up costs, leave millions more uninsured, and entangle health care in the courts.

Already, malpractice insurance for doctors is soaring. Some who perform high-risk procedures, like emergency room physicians, say they cannot afford the premiums and are either retiring or moving into other, safer, forms of medicine.

The plight of emergency room physicians was highlighted in the current film, John Q., in which a desperate father takes a hospital emergency room hostage when his 10-year-old son is refused the heart transplant he needs to save his life.

Hollywood is trying to build a storm of opposition to the U.S. health care system with this latest thriller, even though the film has been panned by Variety as “a shamelessly manipulative commercial on behalf of national health insurance,” and by The New Yorker as “a trashy, opportunistic piece of pop demagoguery.”

In fact, a real-life tragedy similar to the one portrayed in John Q. actually took place two years ago in Canada, which already has national health insurance.

Henry Musuka brought his three-month-old son to a Toronto emergency room because the baby was having trouble breathing. Musuka pulled out a gun – a fake one, it turns out -and took the emergency room hostage because he was desperate to get the staff to respond to his pleas to care for his son.

The police were called, Musuka refused to surrender and was shot and killed.

Clearly, national health insurance is not a cure for a desperate father needing care for his son. In fact, the United States already has laws that require hospitals to provide care to any patient, regardless of whether they have health insurance or not.

Nor would a Patients’ Bill of Rights be a cure for an ailing U.S. health care system by burdening it with huge new litigation costs and mountains of red tape – none of which would provide an ounce of medical care to a single patient.

The president and Mr. Kennedy should turn off the lights in their negotiating room and call it quits on this bad bill. Then they can get down to the real business of creating positive incentives to make the health care marketplace more responsive to consumer demands.

Grace-Marie Turner is president of the Galen Institute, a not-for-profit public policy research organization that focuses on free-market health policy reform. She can be reached at P.O. Box 19080, Alexandria, VA. 22320.

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