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Office of the Press Secretary

For Immediate Release March 2, 2000
                        REMARKS BY THE PRESIDENT
                    ON THE PATIENTS' BILL OF RIGHTS

             Dwight D. Eisenhower Executive Office Building

11:00 A.M. EST

THE PRESIDENT: Thank you very much. Thank you and good morning. Dr. Herald, thank you for your powerful statement. I would like to thank Senator Kennedy, Senator Specter, Senator Chafee for being here; and Representative Norwood and Dingell, Representatives Berry, Morella, and DeLauro; Secretary Shalala, Secretary Herman.

I especially thank the doctors and nurses who stand with us today; the Patients' Bill of Rights Coalition, representing our nation's top health, consumer, and provider organizations.

Dr. Herald's testimony was powerful, but unfortunately, as she made it clear, not unique. For more than two years we've heard health care professionals tell us the same thing. For more than two years we've heard heart-wrenching accounts of families across our nation denied the basic patient protections they need. For more than two years we've worked for a strong, enforceable patients' bill of rights that says you have the right to the nearest emergency room care, the right to see a specialist, the right to know you can't be forced to switch doctors in the middle of a treatment, the right to hold your health care plan accountable.

Along the way, with the help of others in our administration, I've done everything I could through executive action to extend patient safeguards to some 85 million Americans who get their health care through federal plans; to provide similar patient protections to every child covered under the Children's Health Insurance Program. But no state law and no executive action can do what Congress alone has the power to do. Only federal legislation can assure all Americans and all plans get all the patient protection they need.

Thanks to the leadership of Congressman Norwood, Congressman Dingell, and the other members here, the House of Representatives passed such a bill, with the support of 275 members, including 68 members of the Republican caucus. It is a truly bipartisan bill.

Later today a conference committee will meet to take up the legislation. Many of the conferees do not reflect the will of the majority in the House or the will of the majority in the country. I told Congressman Norwood right before we came in here that I think this issue is the only issue with which I have dealt since I've been President that generated any controversy where there is, in the country, almost no difference in the level of support between Republicans, independents and Democrats.

Every major national survey shows that well over 70 percent of all Americans, without regard to their political party, support a strong, enforceable patients' bill of rights. The American people support it and they're entitled to have their elected representatives ratify it.

The Norwood-Dingell bill is the only bipartisan patient protection bill on the table. So far, it's the only bill that can make its way to my desk. I will not sign legislation, as Dr. Herald said, that is a patients' bill of rights in name only. It's not a real patients' bill of rights if it denies people the right to see a specialist, if it fails to guarantee access to the nearest emergency room care, if it denies the right to stay with a health care provider throughout a course of treatment, and if it has a weak appeals process that's tilted against the patients, if it doesn't include a strong enforcement mechanism to hold a health care plan accountable, or if it leaves more than 100 million of our fellow Americans out. We need a bill that covers all our fellow citizens, not one that provides cover for special interests.

Again, I say, this is not a partisan issue anywhere else in the entire United States of America. And I am honored that we have had the bipartisan support we have had. This legislation has the endorsement of more than 300 health care and consumer groups across our country. So as the conference committee gets down to business, I ask them to listen to the voices of people like Dr. Herald, the people who live in the health care system, the people who know how it works, the people whose first concern is for their patients and their families and their future. It is time to reach across party lines and do this.

Let me say that if the Congress will send me a strong, enforceable patients' bill of rights today, I'll send every one of them an invitation to a signing ceremony tomorrow. (Laughter.) Nothing would please me more than to see this issue removed from the context of partisan political debate and imbedded in the daily lives of all our citizens.

It is now my privilege to present the sponsor of the Norwood-Dingell bill, a long-time dentist, a man who has simply acted on his convictions and his experience. And I think we would all do well to listen to him. It's probably a little harder for him to come out for this bill than it was for me, and I feel particularly indebted to Congressman Charlie Norwood.

Representative Norwood. (Applause.)

THE PRESIDENT: Well, I just want to end on sort of a cautionary, but clarion note. Where I come from, this exercise that we have just engaged in is known as preaching to the saved. (Laughter.) And it's very important. But this is one of those examples where the public and the people that really know how the system works are in the same place. And I believe a majority of members of Congress, if, as Congressman Norwood said so eloquently, if they're permitted, they're given a good bill to vote for, they'll vote for it. So the only way that we won't get a good bill is if this conference committee prevents the Congress from voting on a bill they would like to vote for, that is consistent with not only what the majority of the American people want, but virtually one hundred percent of the medical professionals in the country, and a majority of the Congress.

So that's what the stakes are. I am profoundly indebted to the members who are here, to all the health care professionals who are here, to Dr. Herald who spoke so well. But I ask you to remember, the work is ahead of us. And I think we need to, all of us, each in our own way, go to work to impress upon that conference committee their profound responsibility to give the Congress and the country the bill they want to vote on, and the bill they want to live under.

Let's get to work. Thank you very much. (Applause.)

END 11:33 A.M. EST