WASHINGTON -- As one Georgia Republican to another, Rep. Charlie Norwood says he assumes House Speaker Newt Gingrich was acting in good faith when he asked him to participate in a new GOP task force on health care quality.
But Mr. Norwood, whose managed care bill is under assault from traditional Republican business and insurance constituencies, doesn't intend to let the task force become a graveyard for his legislation. More than half the members of the House are co-sponsors of the proposed bill.
"I'm not going to let this die until we get this fixed, and I think Mr. Gingrich knows that," Dr. Norwood, a former dentist from Augusta, said last week. "We're going to have to come to some understanding, hopefully this year."
Dr. Norwood's bill is the most far-reaching of several legislative proposals aimed at consumer fears that health insurance networks are saving money by denying them needed health care, depriving them of the right to choose their doctors and refusing them access to specialists.
The GOP task force, headed by Rep. Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., meets for the first time next week. It has the difficult task of addressing those consumer fears while allaying business and insurance opposition to any managed care regulation.
Dr. Norwood said he expects his bill to be the starting point for the task force deliberations. It has the most support of any managed care proposal in Congress and has been the subject of an intense media campaign by dueling interest groups.
The Health Benefits Coalition, an employer and insurance group, is spending more than $1 million on newspaper and radio ads charging that Dr. Norwood's bill would drive up health care premiums by 23 percent and cost hundreds of thousands of Americans their health insurance coverage.
A coalition representing doctors, dentists and other medical providers, which is supporting Dr. Norwood's bill, has commissioned a study purporting to show that the measure would increase premiums by less than 3 percent. The coalition also has launched a television ad campaign.
Mr. Gingrich has maintained a public silence on the managed care debate and the role he envisions for the task force, referring all questions to Mr. Hastert. But the increasing volume of consumer complaints make it an issue the GOP can hardly ignore in an election year, particularly with the administration taking the lead.
President Clinton issued an executive order Friday establishing a bill of rights for patients in federal health care programs such as Medicare and Medicaid. He urged Congress in his State of the Union address earlier this month to enact similar protections for patients covered by private insurers.
Dr. Norwood said he has lobbied Mr. Gingrich extensively over the past year in hopes of the leadership allowing a House vote on his bill. He said Mr. Gingrich has raised two main objections:
That the provisions which make health plans liable under state malpractice laws for the health care decisions they make also might make employers liable. Dr. Norwood said he never intended that. He is willing to change the bill to ensure that employers can't be hauled into court for decisions made by the managed care companies or HMOs they contract with to provide health care to their employees.
That giving the Labor Department authority to enforce patient standards for employer-provided health plans might open the door to abuses by future administrations or congresses. Dr. Norwood said he's still searching for a way to address that concern.