As Washington deals with terrorism, homeland security, corporate corruption, soaring deficits and a plummeting stock market, U.S. Rep. Charlie Norwood's "Patients' Bill of Rights" isn't exactly on Congress' front burner.
Indeed, the No. 1 health care issue going into the 2002 elections is prescription-drug help for the Medicare crowd, not the rights bill. Yet with medical costs rising at a considerably faster rate than inflation, and tort lawyers driving malpractice premiums out of sight (and many specialists out of business), Norwood's legislation could still become an issue this year and it will almost certainly be back on Congress' agenda next year.
And when that happens, the Republican incumbent House member - by profession a dentist - will have new ammunition to champion the proposal he has fought for since he was first elected to Congress in 1994.
One of the criticisms he's had to contend with is from his own party - that his rights bill would let patients sue after all other remedies have been exhausted, and that would just make his reforms too expensive and impractical (and the Democrats' most generous special-interest group, trial lawyers, too rich).
Well, experience in Georgia and other states that have passed the kind of patients' rights bills Norwood has been urging at the federal level doesn't bear those criticisms out.
In the three years since Georgia's General Assembly revamped health maintenance organizations, not one lawsuit has been filed even though the independent review board has ruled against complainants about half the time. The board's independence and integrity are just too much for plaintiff lawyers to try to overturn in court.
If the tort issue can't be used against Norwood's bill when it comes up again for reconsideration in Congress, it will have a much better chance of passing.
But why have federal legislation at all when 42 states and the District of Columbia already provide patients with an external review process? The answer is that the reforms only apply to about a third of a state's population because federal law exempts health plans offered by self-insured employers which includes most large companies.