The U.S. House of Representatives late Thursday night approved, by a 226 to 203 vote, a bill giving Americans with health insurance expanded guarantees of medical care. In a victory for President Bush, the Republican-controlled House also voted to limit lawsuits against health plans.
The House narrowly passed, by a 218 to 213 vote, an amendment that seeks to curb lawsuits against health plans over treatment decisions in the event of injury or death.
Under the plan, legal proceedings filed in state courts would be governed by federal standards, and strict caps would be placed on damage awards.
Passage came after an 11th-hour compromise was reached between President Bush and Republican Congressman Charlie Norwood of Georgia, a leading supporter of patients' rights legislation, who had long aligned himself with Democrats on the issue.
Mr. Bush had threatened to veto the original House version of the bill, as well as a more far-reaching Senate-passed bill, arguing they would open the way to frivolous lawsuits that would drive up the cost of health insurance and prompt some employers to drop or limit coverage.
After the compromise, Democrats accused Mr. Norwood of striking a secret deal that favors health maintenance organizations and insurance companies over patients, and undermines states' rights.
"This is special interest legislation," said House minority leader Dick Gephardt. "This is doing the bidding of health insurance companies and HMO's over the interests of the people who we represent in our districts. This is a stunning abdication of what we should be fighting to protect for the people we represent."
But Congressman Norwood said the only way to get Mr. Bush to sign a patients' rights bill into law was by reducing the potential for lawsuits and unlimited damage awards. "The [nation's] founders said": 'if you want a law of the land, the President of the United States has to sign it'. For a President of the United States to sign a bill, he is going to participate. This president feels very strongly that we should have the bill, but he wants some protections in there.
The overall House bill gives new protections to patients, including coverage for emergency room care, treatment by medical specialists and access to government-sponsored clinical trials.
Passage of the legislation came as Congress prepared to begin a month-long recess.
A joint conference committee will work to reconcile differences in the House and Senate versions of the patients' rights legislation, when lawmakers return to work in September.