What Congress does for patients' rights this year could have more impact on future doctors than anything they pick up in medical school, U.S. Rep. Charlie Norwood told a gathering of medical students.
And this is the year legislation might finally happen, even though President Bush has yet to weigh in, said Dr. Norwood, a Republican from Georgia.
Speaking Monday at Medical College of Georgia, Dr. Norwood said the battle to give patients the right to choose their doctors and the right to sue their managed care organizations for denying care is just part of the complex changes hitting health care regulation.
"You're going to find 10 years from now that what's happening in Washington, D.C., is going to affect your ability to care for your patients about as much as anything you're going to learn (in medical school)," Dr. Norwood said.
Despite his own six-year crusade to pass a patients' rights bill, which has landed him in the national spotlight as a leader on the issue, Dr. Norwood is deferring for now to Mr. Bush to give the new leader time to put his stamp on the bill.
"He wants to have something to say about what's in this bill," Dr. Norwood said. Former allies Rep. Greg Ganske, R-Iowa, and Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., however, ignored Dr. Norwood's request to wait and filed a new reform bill.
"They (filed) my bill without my name on it," said Dr. Norwood, a retired dentist. Depending on what Mr. Bush decides, an administration bill might turn up in the Senate, and if passed there Dr. Norwood might carry it in the House.
Whatever Mr. Bush decides, the bill will likely carry the ability to sue, Dr. Norwood said. The current Norwood bill would allow patients to sue insurance companies in federal court over contract issues, and sue in state courts over harmful medical decisions made by the companies. Punitive damages would be limited by state law in the state cases and to $5 million in the federal cases.
That liability is decried by the American Association of Health Plans, a group representing more than 1,000 insurance and managed care companies, which insists external review panels already in place in 40 states give patients an avenue to appeal coverage decisions, according to spokeswoman Susan Pisano. The new liability would increase costs and expose both insurance companies and employers to large lawsuits, Ms. Pisano said.
"(The bills) would have the potential to unravel the employer-based health system as we know it," she said.
Dr. Norwood insists companies are shielded from liability as long as they do not participate directly in medical coverage decisions, which Ms. Pisano insists is no barrier to a clever attorney.
It might not be a lawsuit, but the possibility of one in the mind of an insurance company reviewer, that has the most beneficial impact for patients, Dr. Norwood said.
"People may be more cautious (with denials) when they make decisions about what is medically needed," he said.
Reach Tom Corwin at (706) 823-3213.