WASHINGTON -- House Republican leaders said Thursday they could allow a vote on a rival patients' rights bill next week, departing from their strategy of trying to lure supporters to their own version. The concession came as White House negotiators warmed to the idea of expanded rights to sue health plans in state courts.
"It is my intent to take up patients' bill of rights next week," said House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill. "In some situations we're willing to go to a state court. That's one of the things we are working on. We need to get a bill the president can sign."
President Bush, who lobbied undecided members heavily Wednesday, met Thursday with Rep. Charles Norwood. The Georgia Republican is shepherding moderates on the Democratic-backed patients' rights legislation that Bush has promised to veto.
Hastert, who planned to meet with the president at the Capitol Thursday, said discussions center on resolving differences over how patients can sue if they've been injured by a health plan's decision to provide health care. He did not rule out continued support of the GOP majority bill -- a proposal by Rep. Ernest Fletcher, R-Ky. -- that grants the same rights, but limits the instances in which patients could go to state court for redress.
But, he said, "We're trying to get some agreement with Norwood."
Norwood spokesman John Stone said the congressman also wants to work with the majority. "He's never quit negotiating."
Norwood, a conservative on other issues, said Wednesday he's continued talks with the White House during a lot of late nights. But he said as far as concessions go, "I've made mine."
Norwood backers said the White House just hadn't persuaded enough lawmakers to promise votes for the Fletcher proposal. Rep. Bob Barr, R-Ga., a sponsor of the Norwood bill, said he appreciated discussions with Bush, but still found the Fletcher bill offers too many loopholes for errant health plans. "Under current federal law, HMOs are shielded and not accountable for their decisions denying patient care," Barr said after meeting with the president. "This has to change."
House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., said the legal protections in the Fletcher bill were too weak and would take the heart out of the bill.
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