THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
REMARKS BY THE PRESIDENT ON PATIENTS' BILL OF RIGHTS UPON DEPARTURE The South Portico
1:07 P.M. EDT
THE PRESIDENT: Thank you so much. I want to begin, obviously, by thanking Dr. Anderson, the AMA and the physicians who are here behind me from various medical organizations. I want to thank Ron Pollack, the Director of Families USA who has been such a long and tireless champion of health care.
As is often the case when I get up to speak, everything that needs to be said has pretty well been said; but I hope to bring it into some sharper focus in terms of what will have to happen now in the next few weeks if we're going to actually get a real and meaningful patients' bill of rights.
Time is running out in Congress, and there is no more important piece of unfinished business. You see these numbers up here -- 18 million a year. We're trying to pass a minimum wage law. It will affect 10 million people a year. We're very proud here that we reached across party lines to pass the Family and Medical Leave Law. It has affected about 25 million people in the first five years for which we have statistics.
I have already provided the protections of the patients' bill of rights to 85 million Americans who are covered anyway by federal health plans. And, yet, you see that the remaining Americans, nearly 200 million of them, have the experience that leads 18 million of our fellow citizens to suffer delay or denial of care over a year.
Now, what are the rights in the patients' bill of rights. Let me just state them one more time. We should never forget: The right to the nearest emergency room care, the right to see a specialist when recommended by your physician, the right to know you can't be forced to switch doctors in the middle of a treatment such as chemotherapy or a period of pregnancy. The right to hold your health care plan accountable if it causes you or a loved one great harm.
Now, as I said, these are protections we have provided to 85 million Americans who get their health care through federal plans. Fact: What did it cost to provide these protections? Less than $1 a month. That's a fact. Even the Republican Majority's Congressional Budget Office concedes that the costs -- could cover all Americans -- would be less than $2 a month. And only congressional legislation can provide all Americans and all plans the patient protections they deserve.
Last fall, thanks to the leadership of Congressman Norwood, a physician and a Republican, and Congressman Dingell, a Democrat from Michigan, the House of Representatives passed such a bill with a majority of 275 members, including 68 Republicans. Nearly a year later, I am confident we now have the votes to pass the very same bill with the same protections in the Senate if -- big if -- we can get it up to a vote.
The bill's vital signs, in other words, are growing stronger, but it's still a near-run thing. If it were a tie, I know someone who would like to break it. And as Al Gore always says, whenever he votes, the people win.
But this is not about politics. I was glad that Dr. Anderson said what he did. If you took a survey in any community in America, except Washington, D.C., there would be almost no difference in the opinion on this legislation between Republicans, Democrats and Independents.
Now, let me remind you what the daily toll is. Ron's got the running total up there, but nearly 50,000 Americans every day face a delay or denial of care. Nearly 50,000. Every hour, more than 2,000 people fail to get the treatment they need. We can't turn back the counter, but we sure don't have to run it up. And this is not about statistics. This is about real people with real problems who deserve real care so they can get on with real life instead of the politics of Washington, D.C.
That's what this Families USA Tour is all about. It's about -- let me just mention two -- people like Joan Bleakley, who lost her sight in her left eye, in part because her HMO forced her to wait three weeks before seeing a neurologist; people like Doug Bolden -- you will remember him if you went with me to Missouri to the patients' bill of rights event down there; a big, burly emergency room nurse, whose patient was forced by his HMO to leave one hospital and travel more than 50 miles to another, suffered a heart attack and died along the way because he wasn't entitled to health care at the nearest emergency center.
And believe me, these are not isolated examples. I've heard many, many more, and you've got the numbers here to back it up. So again, what this is about is whether the Senate Leadership will let the votes be counted, and allow a free and fair vote on Norwood-Dingell. The American people need to be reminded. The rules of the Senate, which were set up to avoid measures being dealt with too rapidly, give everything but our annual budget the option of being subject to a filibuster, which takes 60 votes, not 51, not a majority -- 60 -- to pass.
Now, there is no question that this has been debated forever. We do not need any more time for a debate. And the people who aren't for this bill ought to just stand up and tell the American people why they're not for it and why they think the doctors, the nurses and 300 other health care provider and consumer organizations are wrong, and the HMOs and the insurance companies are right. And then, they ought to let everybody vote.
But it is an abuse of the filibuster to deny the Majority of the United States Senate, representing an even bigger majority of the American people, a chance to have their way on an issue this fundamental to democracy.
We don't need any more time to debate this. They don't need to put on the brakes to look at it again. This thing has been hanging around for two years now, and it's been debated in and out. It's time to listen to the doctors, the nurses, the patients, the other consumer and provider experts.
To listen to a majority of members of Congress, including the Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives, who would vote for this bill today, the bill should not be held up or watered down. Again, I am willing to reach agreement. We reached an honorable compromise on one major provision with opponents of the legislation in the Senate, which everyone could live with. But we cannot abandon our commitment to a bill that covers all Americans -- all Americans -- with the right to the specialists they need, the nearest emergency room care, the right to keep a physician during a course of treatment, the right to hold health care plans accountable, the right, in short, that allows doctors, not people who have no training in medicine and are concerned only with the bottom line to make these decisions. And also, a system that provides access to important clinical trials. In other words, a strong, comprehensive, enforceable patients' bill of rights.
We can do this. If we just let the Senate vote, we can put progress over partisanship, health care over special interests, and restore trust and accountability to our health care system. We should do it now. But every single American should know what's going on.
In order to prevail on legislation that has the support of more than three-quarters of the American people, including 70 percent or more of every political group in America, we have to do one of two things: we've got to persuade the leadership of the Senate to let a majority vote on this, and if a majority's for it, to pass it; or we have to find nine or 10 more votes between now and the time they go home to break a filibuster that is, in my judgment, an abuse of the filibuster system. There is no debating this. Everybody knows what the deal is; everybody what the differences are.
Meanwhile, I will keep negotiating. I will keep trying, but I will not abandon the people who are part of these numbers up here, because I've heard too many of their stories.
Again, I thank the doctors, I thank the nurses, I thank Families USA, and I thank all the American people. We can do this, and we can do it in a nonpartisan way, if we can just get the roadblocks out of the way.
Thank you very much. (Applause.)
Q Mr. President, could you take a question? I was wondering, Mr. President, if you share the embarrassment that was expressed yesterday by the federal judge in New Mexico about the treatment of Wen Ho Lee during his year of confinement under federal authorities?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, I always had reservations about the claims that were being made denying him bail. And let me say -- I think I speak for everyone in the White House -- we took those claims on good faith by the people in the government that were making them, and a couple days after they made the claim that this man could not possibly be let out of jail on bail because he would be such a danger -- of flight, or such a danger to America's security -- all of a sudden they reach a plea agreement which will, if anything, make his alleged defense look modest compared to the claims that were made against him.
So the whole thing was quite troubling to me, and I think it's very difficult to reconcile the two positions, that one day he's a terrible risk to the national security, and the next day they're making a plea agreement for an offense far more modest than what had been alleged.
Now, I do hope that, as part of that plea agreement, he will help them to reconstitute the missing files, because that's what really important to our national security, and we will find out eventually what, if any, use was made of them by him or anybody else who got a hold of them.
But I think what should be disturbing to the American people -- we ought not to keep people in jail without bail, unless there's some real profound reason. And to keep someone in jail without bail, argue right up to the 11th hour that they're a terrible risk, and then turn around and make that sort of plea agreement -- it may be that the plea agreement is the right and just thing, and I have absolutely no doubt that the people who were investigating and pursuing this case believe they were doing the right thing for the nation's security -- but I don't think that you can justify, in retrospect, keeping a person in jail without bail when you're prepared to make that kind of agreement. It just can't be justified, and I don't believe it can be, and so I, too, am quite troubled by it.
Q -- clemency here? Are you thinking in terms of clemency for him, for Wen Ho Lee?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, I'd have to look at that. It depends on, if he's in fact -- he has said he's going to plead guilty to an offense which is not insubstantial, but it's certainly a bailable offense, andand it means he spent a lot of time in prison that any ordinary American wouldn't have, and that bothers me.
Q Mr. President, tomorrow morning, right here on this lawn, you are going to welcome the Prime Minister of India who spoke today on Capitol Hill, and he's calling for stronger U.S.-India security relations, and also fighting against terrorism around the world, especially across the border from Indian border -- across-border terrorism. So what do you think, Sir, coming out from this historical visit, and also, following your visit in March that you've been in India?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, first, I am delighted that the Prime Minister of India is coming here after my trip there, and I was honored to be the first President in over 20 years to go. They're the world's largest democracy. We need to have a better and closer and more constructive relationship with them, and I hope that this will be the next step in that, and I think we'll make some specific agreements.
But the United States is strongly opposed to terrorism in any form, and I still hope that, if not while I'm here, then in the future, because of the groundwork we've laid, the United States can play a positive role to a peaceful resolution of the Kashmir dispute, which has been at the core of the difficulties between India and Pakistan for more than half a century now.
If you look at how well -- I will say this again -- if you look at how well the Indians, the Pakistanis and the Bangladeshis who have come to America have done, the extraordinary percentage of them that are involved in the hi-tech economy, the professions, building our country across a broad range of areas, it is tragic to think of what this conflict has done to hold back the people who live on the Indian Subcontinent, who are still all of them living on around $500 or less a day, on average, and who have proven by their stunning success in this country, that they have the ability to be at the cutting edge of the 21st century.
So I hope they can lay this burden down, and I hope we can help them, and in the meanwhile, of course, we'll have to oppose terrorism in all its manifestations.
Thank you very much.
Q Mr. President, could you explain to the American people about Vietnam? Why you've decided to go?
THE PRESIDENT: -- another press conference with the Prime Minister tomorrow, and I will answer some more questions then. But we've got to leave.
END 1:26 P.M. EDT