Dems call GOP leader's bluff on patients' bill of rights for feds

Sen. Don Nickles, R-Okla., may have simply been trying to make a point when he introduced a measure that would make a proposed patients' bill of rights apply to federal employees, but now Democrats are saying they back the idea.

The patients' bill of rights legislation has seen its share of political oneupsmanship--especially now that it is heading to a conference committee on Capitol Hill. During the Senate debate, Minority Whip Don Nickles, R-Okla., proposed language that would allow federal employees--the same rights as private health plan beneficiaries, including the right to take their healthcare providers to court. The initial Senate version, as well as the version passed by the House, had exempted federal employee plans from lawsuits.

"It was an 'I'm-going-to-make-a- point' amendment," a Nickles aide said. "The federal government is quick to impose all sorts of standards on the private sector, but it often doesn't make them applicable to itself."

Ultimately, the amendment passed the Senate by a voice vote. Nickles' staff smiled when some federal employee unions--typically staunch allies of the Democrats--suddenly got late-in-the-game jitters about the Democratic-backed bill, worrying that the litigatory threats could destabilize some plans.

But an aide to Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Chairman Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., is calling Nickles' bluff, noting that such a move would simply spread new rights more widely.

"This legislation is about trying to expand rights to as many Americans as possible," the Democratic aide said.

As a practical matter, the aide added, Nickles and other conservatives are unlikely to push hard for the federal employee language in conference. It is "a sideshow and a smokescreen," the aide said.

However, the House has opened the door for the issue to be debated in conference by adding a "sense of Congress" clause to their bill that the bill's provisions should apply to people in federal health programs and calling for a GAO study.

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