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Demos blast Bush patient rights stand

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WASHINGTON — One week after the Senate approved a far-reaching patients' bill of rights, Democrats pressed for passage in the House, accusing President Bush Saturday of trying to scuttle legislation with "overwhelming bipartisan and public support."

The Democrat-led Senate approved the bill last week and key supporters said they had the votes to pass it later this month in the Republican-controlled House despite a Bush veto threat.

With Congress set to return Monday from its Fourth of July recess, House Democrats used their weekly radio address to step up pressure on Bush to back down.

Rep. John Dingell of Michigan, the bill's chief Democratic sponsor in the House, touted the benefits of legislation giving Americans sweeping new health-care rights and the power to sue health maintenance organization and insurers if the treatment is denied.

"In short, you will have the rights and protections that have too long been denied by HMOs," Dingell said in the address.

He also challenged White House warnings that the bill would lead to "skyrocketing" health-care costs and an increase in the number of the uninsured.

"This is a gross and deliberate misrepresentation of the fact," said Dingell, the ranking Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

Democrats made the long-stalled patients' bill of rights their first priority after taking control of the Senate last month, drawing battle lines with Bush on legislation popular with the American public.

In a preliminary victory, the Senate voted 59-36 June 29 in favor of the bill, sending it to the House, where it faces a protracted fight that may well reach into the 2002 congressional elections.

The bill would permit jury awards of up to $5 million in federal court and unlimited punitive damages under state law. It would also ensure all Americans with private or public health insurance have access to emergency care, medical specialists and clinical drug trials.

The White House and industry groups warned the legislation would benefit trial lawyers and force many employers to drop their health-care coverage because of higher costs.

"That's the equivalent of one Big Mac or one Happy Meal a month. That's a small price to pay to ensure that you have fundamental rights regarding your health care," Dingell said.

Bush has thrown his support behind a competing measure by House Speaker Dennis Hastert, an Illinois Republican, which would cap noneconomic damages in federal court at $500,000 and give patients a limited right to sue in state court if an HMO or insurer fails to abide by the decision of a review board.

"What we try to do is to try to put patients first," Hastert told CNN's "Evans, Novak, Hunt & Shields" in an interview. "And what the other bill does, to a large extent, is get people into lawyer's office and the courtrooms before they ever get their health care."