Originally created 03/12/98

Norwood-backed managed-care bill gaining steam



WASHINGTON -- A managed-care reform bill sponsored by Augusta's congressman has gained more support than it has lost since opponents began running ads against it.

The legislation, unveiled last April by U.S. Rep. Charlie Norwood, has gained 18 co-sponsors since the beginning of the year, bringing the list of supporters in the House to 226. Three House members have withdrawn their names from the bill since business groups and the insurance industry launched two advertising campaigns comparing it to President Clinton's ill-fated 1994 health-reform plan.

"Anytime you've got a bill with more than 200 co-sponsors, you can bet some are going to drop off if (opponents) run ads," said John Stone, spokesman for Dr. Norwood, R-Ga. "But obviously, others heard the ads and have signed on."

The Patient Access to Responsible Care Act would establish a "bill of rights" guaranteeing patients the right to seek emergency care without prior authorization, appeal adverse coverage decisions to an outside panel, choose doctors outside of their health plan's network and sue plan administrators for harm caused by medically negligent decisions.

While supporters have argued that such protections are necessary to prevent abuses that have accompanied the growth of managed care, opponents say the Norwood bill would drive up the number of uninsured families by imposing costly mandates on health plans. Dr. Norwood has come under fire as a conservative Republican advocating a big-government solution to a problem that should be left to the private sector.

Karen Kerrigan, chairman of the Coalition for Patient Choice, noted that most of the supporters who have signed on to the bill recently are Democrats.

Of the 18 lawmakers who have agreed to co-sponsor the bill this year, only two -- U.S. Reps. Michael Forbes of New York and Jim Leach, chairman of the House Banking Committee -- are Republicans. All three House members who have withdrawn support also are from the GOP.

Two other conservative Republicans -- U.S. Reps. Steve Largent of Oklahoma and David McIntosh of Indiana -- remain as co-sponsors but have warned Dr. Norwood they would not vote for the bill in its current form.

"The additional co-sponsors ... have been more from the Democratic liberal base," said Ms. Kerrigan, also president of the Small Business Survival Committee, which sponsored a series of radio ads that ran in the Augusta area.

In a joint letter to Dr. Norwood, Mr. Largent and Mr. McIntosh objected to language in the bill that they said could force insurance companies to charge the same premium to everyone, regardless of age or physical condition, and allow people to wait until they're sick before buying health insurance.

"We are concerned that granting ... broad new authority to issue new regulations could make it easier for the (federal government) to enact through regulation the nationalized health care the American people rejected four years ago," according to the letter.

The clause in question was inserted into the bill on the advice of attorneys to ensure that it is consistent with existing federal civil rights law, Mr. Stone said.

"If that language being in there bothers some people, we'll take it out," he said.

Meanwhile, the bill continues to languish in legislative limbo. After allowing two committee hearings on it last fall, House Republican leaders have yet to schedule action on it this year.

A House GOP task force, which includes Dr. Norwood, is meeting weekly to formulate a Republican health-care agenda.