Saturday, August 04, 2001

Lucas was swing vote on patient rights

Dem sided with GOP on limits to liability

By Derrick DePledge
Enquirer Washington Bureau

        WASHINGTON — A White House compromise on patients' rights might have disintegrated if Rep. Ken Lucas, D-Ky., had not again defied his political party and voted with Republicans.

        Mr. Lucas was one of three Democrats to cross party lines late Thursday and support the compromise, helping Republicans narrowly preserve the agreement in a 218-213 vote that salvaged a patients rights bill that later passed the House.

        “I just think it's long overdue that we let this thing become a reality instead of a political football,” said Mr. Lucas, a conservative so-called Blue Dog Democrat who often votes with Republicans on tax, budget and social issues.

        Aides said throughout the day Thursday that Mr. Lucas was undecided, listening to arguments from both sides and reviewing the details of an agreement that had just been worked out by the White House and key Republicans.

        Ultimately, Mr. Lucas said he sided with Republicans who wanted to limit the ability of patients to sue health maintenance organizations in state and federal courts.

        The House bill allows such lawsuits after patients appeal to independent review boards but places a ceiling — $1.5 million in most cases — on some damages. A Senate version includes broader rights for patients to sue for damages. The two versions will have to be reconciled in a conference committee.

        “Unlimited liability gave me some heartburn,” Mr. Lucas said.

        The Blue Dogs are sought-after swing votes to offset defections by moderate Republicans. Rep. Collin Peterson, a Blue Dog from Minnesota, also voted with the Republicans. The other Democrat to cross his party was Rep. James Traficant Jr. of Ohio, who has lost his committee assignments in a fight with the Democratic leadership.

        Mr. Lucas said he waited until the last minute to decide, not to be dramatic but because the legislation was constantly changing shape. “I try to leave my options open and try to listen to everyone,” he said.


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