SENATE PASSES PATIENTS’ BILL OF RIGHTS
On June 29 the U.S. Senate passed the Bipartisan Patient Protection Act, by a vote of 59-36. The legislation would establish detailed federal standards for private health insurance and would allow patients to file lawsuits, in federal or state court, to enforce their rights. It now goes to the House of Representatives.
The Senate bill was sponsored by Edward Kennedy, John McCain and John Edward. The nine Republicans who supported it were Lincoln Chafee (R.I), Susan Collins and Olympia J. Snowe (Maine), Mike DeWine (Ohio), Peter G. Fitzgerald (Illinois), John McCain (Arizona), Gordon H. Smith (Oregon), Arlen Specter (Pennsylvania) and John W. Warner (Virginia).
President Bush and Republicans in Congress oppose the measure, arguing that expanding the rights of patients will cause an explosive growth in lawsuits against health plans, so that insurance premiums will rise and employers will drop coverage for their employees.
The bill would allow patients to get emergency care at the nearest hospital, regardless of whether it is affiliated with their health plan. HMOs would have to give patients prompt access to medical specialists. Women could visit obstetricians and gynecologists without a referral or prior authorization. An HMO would have to cover any hospital stay deemed necessary by a doctor caring for a woman after a mastectomy. Doctors would be free to discuss all treatment options with patients, regardless of whether the treatments were covered by a health plan. This legislation appears to cover almost all of the 231 million Americans with health insurance coverage from any source.
RENT HIKES ARE TOO HIGH
On June 20 the Rent Guidelines Board voted, 7-2, to raise rents by 4 percent for a one-year lease renewal and 6 percent for a two-year renewal. (Board members reversed their preliminary vote, taken one month earlier, which had set a 3 percent increase for a one-year renewal and 5 percent for a two-year renewal.) The board also approved loft rent increases of 1 percent for one year and 2 percent for two years, and residential hotel increases of 2 percent a year. The increases affect all rent-stabilized tenants in New York City whose leases expire between Oct. 1, 2001, and Sept. 30, 2002.
These increases will have a drastic impact on tenants. For example, a current rent of $800 a month will rise by $32 a month, or $384 a year, for a one-year renewal and 48 a month, or $576 a year, for a two-year renewal. Tenants who pay $1,500 a month will see monthly increases of $60 and $90, for a one- and two-year renewal respectively.
Mayor Rudolph Giuliani recently appointed three new members to the Rent Guidelines Board. All of them supported the higher increase. The only votes opposing it came from the two tenant representatives on the board.
STOP FAST TRACK
The New York City Central Labor Council has established a Fast Track Task Force to lobby the New York City Congressional Delegation to vote against fast track legislation now pending in Congress. Fast Track is a procedure through which Congress gives the president authority to negotiate trade agreements and provides special rules for considering them. Its opponents argue that Fast Track would remove all ability to amend the international treaty now being negotiated, the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), making it impossible to require the inclusion of enforceable protections for the environment and workers’ rights. A campaign to defeat Fast Track will be among the labor movement’s highest priorities in coming weeks.
NEW PROGRAMS IN THE ASSEMBLY BUDGET
As the budget begins to take shape in Albany, the Assembly Health Committee has been advocating funding for several new programs that would expand access to health care. One important bill, said Assembly Health Committee Chair Richard Gottfried, is the Work and Wellness Act of 2001 (A-734). It would extend Medicaid coverage to disabled workers with incomes below 150 percent of the poverty level, and would allow others to buy into the program by paying premiums on a sliding scale based on income. The aim is to protect people with disabilities who want to work but cannot take decent-paying jobs without risking the loss of their Medicaid coverage.