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If the Democrats had won the fight over the Patients' Bill of Rights in the Senate last week, people in the Shapiros' situation might finally have had some luck when it comes to suing their HMOs. Republicans voted down the expansion of the right to sue, along with initiatives that would have given women more freedom to pick their doctors and, under some circumstances, guaranteed patients the right to keep their doctor for a few months after switching plans. But the liability issue, due to resurface when the debate moves to the House, remains the debate's hot spot because it cuts to the heart of the health care mess: money.
Managed health care companies now decide what kinds of tests and appointments most Americans get, who their doctors are, and, often, which therapies will give them a last shot at life. Yet "health care consumers," as we're lovingly known, can't sue most HMOs for damages when they feel these decisions are harmful. The strange loophole is the result of applying a 1970s federal law designed to protect employers to today's insurers, who have fused actual medicine into their insurance business.
The federal law, called the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, or ERISA, protects private employer-sponsored health insurers in suits over anything but the cost of care. And New York State law further shields managed care companies from liability by simply stating that "health services provided through HMOs either directly or indirectly are not to be considered the practice of the profession of medicine."
If Congress ultimately adopts a right-to-sue provision an unlikely prospect, given Republican unity against it and the $20 million industry-sponsored ad campaign supporting their position ERISA would no longer apply to health insurance. The state protections might also become moot.
What difference would that make? Republicans insist that opening the door to lawsuits would "make trial lawyers rich by drowning the courts with new lawsuits," as one industry ad now running on TV puts it. Opponents of the right to sue also predict it would drive up the cost of health care and cause employers to stop providing health insurance altogether.
But those favoring a right to sue say that the threat of litigation would make HMOs more honest. "Health plans would know they're accountable and do the right thing from the beginning," predicts Judy Waxman of Families USA, a nonprofit that advocates for health care consumers. Patients' advocates also note that few Texans have taken advantage of their unusual state law, which allows lawsuits against HMOs (and was passed in 1997 against the wishes of Governor George W. Bush).
Instead, they see providing a consumer with the right to sue for damages as bringing health insurers in step with the rest of the country. "This is the only industry that has such exemptions," says Waxman, who complains that, as the law now stands, "HMOs have every reason to delay and delay and deny and deny."
Even if very few cases make it to court, there is no question that removing the protections that insulate the health-insurance industry from lawsuits would benefit some real people who have become entangled in the worst of the system. In New York, most complaints never get to court, since patients know their chances of winning are slim. Here are a few cases that were filed, but ultimately thwarted by ERISA and state law.
Patrick Thrope: Thrope was 12 years old when he was diagnosed with heart disease. Just over three years later, Thrope developed serious complications from his condition, but his HMO, the Health Insurance Plan of Greater New York, refused to authorize tests on his heart for two years, according to a 1996 lawsuit filed by his family in New York Supreme Court. Several times, the suit alleges, HIP denied the Thropes' request for an ambulance for Patrick, forcing him to rely on a cab to get to the hospital, and delayed authorization when he required hospital treatment.
The gravest of the Thropes' claims accuses HIP of refusing to provide a heart transplant and other surgeries that may have helped their son. The suit also blames HIP for denying the Thropes' request for an out-of-network specialist who was familiar with his case, instead sending the teenager to a HIP network provider who canceled and put off appointments with Thrope for four months. That physician, according to the Thropes' complaint, failed to hospitalize or make a referral for him even after informing the young Thrope that his lungs were filling with blood and that he might not live much longer.