July 24, 2001

July 24, 2001 | News Releases on Health Care

Any "Patients Bill of Rights" Should Also Apply to Congress, Analyst Says

WASHINGTON, Jul. 24, 2001-WASHINGTON, JULY 24, 2001-If members of the House of Representatives believe a "Patients' Bill of Rights" is good medicine for health insurers, they should have no problem ensuring that its provisions apply to Congress as well, a Heritage Foundation health-care expert said today.

"It's a matter of simple fairness," said Robert Moffit, Heritage's director of domestic policy studies. "Why should the federal government, the nation's largest single provider of health benefits, be exempt from such a bill? Surely House members don't plan to provide two sets of rules-one for themselves and one for everyone else."

But considering some of the concerns aired by House congressional staff about the Patients' Bill of Rights, such an outcome is possible, Moffit said. "This legislation doesn't just provide a broader right to sue HMOs. It expands the regulatory grasp of government to virtually every aspect of private health care, from prescription drugs to clinical trials. Staffers are saying this is going to 'confuse' and 'complicate' existing law-and they're dead right."

The Senate's version of the Patients' Bill of Rights includes an amendment offered by Sen. Don Nickles, R-Okla., that would apply the terms of the bill to Congress. But it's a different story in the House, Moffit noted.

One leading version, sponsored by Rep. Ernest Fletcher, R-Ky., omits the Nickles language entirely. The other, offered by Reps. Greg Ganske, R-Iowa, and John Dingell, D-Mich., merely expresses the "sense of the Congress" that the president should make the Patients' Bill of Rights apply to the Federal Employees Health Benefits Plan (FEHBP) "to the extent feasible."

Supporters of the Fletcher version get marks for honesty, Moffit said. "Congressional staff have had the decency to be frank. They don't want the bill applied to Congress, Medicare, Medicaid and the Veterans Health Administration because it would drive up costs for taxpayers and add unnecessarily burdensome regulations and higher premiums to their own health coverage. But why is something that's bad for Congress and Medicare beneficiaries good for the rest of us?"

As for the Ganske-Dingell version, those who believe lawmakers eventually will allow FEHBP to come under the Patients' Bill of Rights are kidding themselves, Moffit said. "Federal union officials already are scrambling to get their health plans exempted from the bill. This puts the lie to everything official Washington says about how it won't raise costs and make coverage less affordable. If lawmakers believed that, they'd support the Nickles' amendment."

Real accountability will come only when insurers are accountable to employees and not to employers, Moffit said. "Employees focus mostly with the quality of care, while employers focus on the cost of care. Health plans are naturally going to respond to the one who's paying the bill, and that's the employer."

The intention behind the Patients' Bill of Rights is good, but its remedy is misguided, Moffit said. "If a restaurant patron receives bad service, for example, he has a number of options, which include going somewhere else," he said. "Most employees don't have that option-they're stuck. So rather than regulate each and every 'restaurant'-that is, every health plan-why don't lawmakers change the law to let employees have the plan of their choice?"

That's exactly what members of Congress, their families and more than 10 million federal employees can do in the FEHBP. As Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., recently noted during debate over the Patients' Bill of Rights: "We have 34, 35 choices. What other worker in America has that kind of choice? The people say, what about your appeal? Generally speaking, you do not need an appeal, you can just go to another health-care policy." Adds Moffit: "That's the right that Americans need-to be able to find a plan that will serve their needs for the right price."

For more details, see "Why Federal Unions and Members of Congress Want to Escape the Patients' Bill of Rights".

About the Author

Related Issues: Health Care