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Lawmakers, Hatch Push Patients' Rights Legislation
By Tom Scheck, Minnesota Public Radio
February 27, 2001
Part of MPR's online coverage of Session 2001
Click for audio RealAudio

A bipartisan group of lawmakers say they want to enact a "patient's bill of rights" during this year's session. Lawmakers say the measure will ensure that HMOs are held accountable when a patient is denied care. Last year, a similar measure passed the DFL-controlled Senate, but failed in the Republican-dominated House. Supporters are confident the legislation will pass this year since voters made it an issue in the last political campaign. But opponents say consumers won't back the bill once they realize how much it could cost them.

"This is an issue that's percolating among people who in their daily lives have disputes around health plans and currently the playing field is uneven in which patients and doctors don't know the roles," says Rep. Ron Abrams.
THE LEGISLATURE HAS DEBATED the "Patient's Bill of Rights" for the past three years. The major sticking point has been the threat of lawsuits. Currently, if an HMO inappropriately denies care to a patient, the patient has the right to sue for the amount of the covered treatment, but nothing else.

Minnesota Attorney General Mike Hatch wants lawmakers to extend the litigation to include punitive damages.

"If a health plan negligently denies care and as a result, that patient is further harmed, then that health plan should be liable," Hatch maintains.

Hatch, DFL Sen. Don Samuelson and Republican Rep. Ron Abrams say allowing patients to pursue punitive damages would help ensure patient protection. Abrams says the "Fairness in Health Care Act" also requires HMOs to cite specific reasons when care is denied, requires insurers to provide court-mandated treatment and guarantees that patients receive "medically necessary" treatment.

"This is an issue that's percolating among people who in their daily lives have disputes around health plans and currently the playing field is uneven in which patients and doctors don't know the roles, the roles are not followed and there's no quality of information if you will," Abrams says.

HMOs claim they not only provide quality information, but quality care. Michael Scandrett with the Minnesota Council of Health Plans says if the plan becomes law, insurers will be forced to significantly raise premiums. He says employers faced a 10-percent increase in health care costs in the last year and the price could skyrocket if the state dictates which medical treatments insurers should provide.

"It ties the hands of health plans..."

- Michael Scandrett
Minnesota Council of Health Plans
"It ties the hands of health plans to do any of the things that they currently do that have actually been quite successful in both improving the quality of care received by making sure that we're paying for things that work and also reducing costs by using network providers, by reviewing care to make sure that we aren't for example a hospitalization when it's unnecessary," Scandrett said.

The Minnesota Chamber of Commerce also thinks the bill is unnecessary. The chamber says it could force employers to stop offering health coverage altogether. The chamber's Carolyn Jones says a state law permitting patients to sue for punitive damages could not only hold the HMO liable but employers as well. Jones says passage of the bill would force employers to make difficult decisions regarding health benefits.

"For employers, the biggest issue is actually the fear itself that the threat of liability will cause many employers to pull back on their health care coverage or offer stipends so that individuals can buy their own health care coverage," according to Jones.

Jones says her organization is working with a separate group of lawmakers on other patient protection acts that she says would be less threatening to business owners.

Tom Scheck covers health issues for Minnesota Public Radio. Reach him via e-mail at