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Sep 19, 2000
by Kevin Hogan
Congress Urged to Support Patient's Bill of RightsALBANY, NY- The husband of Judith Packevicz, the Saratoga Springs woman who died after battling her HMO over a liver transplant, joined with other advocates in Albany Monday to call on New York's congressional delegation to support a patients bill of rights at the federal level.
Chuck Packevicz urged U.S. Rep. Rick Lazio, R-Long Island, and other members of Congress to support a bipartisan bill expected to be voted on later this month. Packevicz and advocates from nine other groups lobbied for a comprehensive patients bill of rights giving all Americans the right to sue their HMOs.
Currently, under the federal Employee Retirement Income Security Act only government employees, people who purchase their own health coverage, or recipients of Medicare or Medicaid are allowed to sue their managed care providers. However, the law prevents 125 million private-sector Americans from recovering damages against their HMOs.
"It's ironic at best that members of Congress have those legal rights, but their constituents don't," said Blair Horner, legislative director of the New York Public Interest Research Group, one of the nine groups that sent out the letter to New York's congressional delegation. "It's unfair for Lazio and other Republicans to vote against giving citizens the legal right to sue when that is something they can do as a government employee," Horner said.
"Rick Lazio has the right to sue, but he has denied that right to New Yorkers and everyone in this country," said Richard Kirsch, of Citizen Action of New York.
Out of New York's 31-member delegation, only Lazio and two other Republican congressmen - Amo Houghton and Vito Fossella - voted against a bill last October sponsored by Republican Charles Norwood and Democrat John Dingell giving patients the right to their HMO with no monetary limits. All 19 Democratic House members and nine Republicans supported the Norwood-Dingell bill, including the Capital District delegation, Michael McNulty, D-Green Island, and John Sweeney, R-Halfmoon. While the measure easily passed the House, it fell one vote short in the U.S. Senate.
Now that Lazio is running for Senate, advocates say he could play a deciding role in the fate of the legislation during the next session if it doesn't pass this year.
"If Congressman Lazio wins the Senate seat and doesn't support the patient's right to sue, he could be the key vote to defeat this measure," said Jamie Court, the executive director of the California-based Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, who attended Monday's press conference in Albany.
In addition to the letter sent Monday to all 31 House members, the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights asked Lazio, Houghton and Fossella to sign a pledge supporting the bipartisan patients' bill of rights or sign waiver giving up their right to sue their HMO. The waiver states: "I recognize that it is unfair for me as a public servant to have greater remedies against an HMO than my constituents."
There was no response from Lazio's office Monday on the call that he sign the waiver. Congress is expected to vote again on the Norwood-Dingell bill before it adjourns on Oct. 6.
Court, who co-authored a book last year entitled "Making A Killing: HMOs and the Threat To Your Health," believes just the threat of a lawsuit is enough in many instances to force HMOs to provide coverage for life-saving operations or coverage they might to reluctant to do otherwise.
"We found an epidemic of HMO denials and delays. From my research, the only thing that is going to stop this epidemic is when patients have the legal leverage to threaten their HMOs with big damages," he said. "Every other industry in America is held liable for wrongdoing, but HMOs all too often face no accountability," Court said.
An example of HMO bureaucrats ignoring doctors' recommendations until a lawsuit was threatened was highlighted in Court's book concerning Judith Packevicz's fight with Schenectady-based MVP Health Plan. Although her doctors recommended Packevicz get a liver transplant, MVP initially rejected the request. When Packevicz's family realized she was a former Saratoga Springs city employee and was allowed to sue her HMO they brought the case to court and MVP agreed to perform the operation. However, she died a short time later.
Chuck Packevicz said it was an issue of fairness, not politics, that prompted him to attend Monday's press conference. He remains extremely upset knowing that some Americans can sue their HMOs for making negligent medical decisions, while other Americans are prevented under the law.
"They should give us a level playing field," Packevicz said.
Critics of allowing patients the right to sue contend it would raise consumer costs and flood the courts with lawsuits. However, Packevicz and others don't buy those claims. They contend that frivolous cases will be tossed out. Court, quoting from the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, noted that Texas became an HMO liability state in 1997. Since then, less than six lawsuits have been filed.
"HMOs are more likely now to respond to doctors' request for treatment and approve them. Not only has there been few lawsuits and almost no litigation, but health care costs in Texas are below the national average since it went into effect," Court said.
Not only has legislation allowing consumers to sue their HMOs failed at the national level, but here in New York as well. The legislation in Albany named in memory of Judith Packevicz, called "Judy's Law," has been passed by the Democratic-controlled state Assembly. However, supporters of the law blame state Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno and his Senate Republicans for blocking its passage in the upper house.
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