Obama unveils "Patients' Bill of Rights"

Republican lawmakers dismissed the president's announcement as a public relations stunt designed to sell what they called a flawed health reform package.

By David Glendinning — Posted July 5, 2010

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President Obama has unveiled a "Patients' Bill of Rights," essentially a repackaging of insurance consumer protections that were written into the national health reform law enacted three months earlier.

Citing a new set of federal reform regulations, Obama during a White House event on June 22 said Democrats in Congress and his administration achieved a goal that had eluded lawmakers since more than a decade earlier. That's when bipartisan support for legislation limiting perceived insurance company abuses proved insufficient to move it to the president's desk.

"Today, I'm announcing that the Depts. of Health and Human Services, Labor, and Treasury are issuing new regulations under the Affordable Care Act that will put an end to some of the worst practices in the insurance industry, and put in place the strongest consumer protections in our history -- finally, what amounts to a true Patients' Bill of Rights," Obama said.

Among the protections Obama cited were new bans on excluding children based on preexisting conditions, dropping people from plans when they get sick, issuing lifetime benefits limits, restricting choices of primary care physicians from plan networks, requiring referrals for ob-gyn care, and charging more for out-of-network emergency care. Many of the regulations take effect in September, but existing health plans that are deemed "grandfathered" are exempt from some of them.

Obama used the White House event, which also featured executives from health insurance companies, to reassert that the regulations are not meant to punish health plans. But he also warned the industry that the administration would be watching closely to make sure that insurers don't seek loopholes.

"Insurance companies should see this reform as an opportunity to improve care and increase competition," the president said. "They shouldn't see it as an opportunity to enact unjustifiable rate increases that don't boost care and inflate their bottom line."

The announcement of the new regulations drew praise from consumer advocates.

"In its essence, the new Patients' Bill of Rights means that patients will now be empowered to avoid or remedy possible abuses by their health plans," said Ron Pollack, executive director of Families USA. "This is a long-awaited improvement for millions of America's families."

But Republican lawmakers, none of whom supported the national reform law, dismissed the development as political gimmickry.

"Given its track record of broken health care promises, it's a mystery why the administration would make even more they can't keep," Sen. Orrin Hatch (R, Utah) said in a statement. "This shouldn't be called a health care bill of rights, but a bill of goods that the American people aren't buying. There isn't enough slick advertising, politically crafted events or artful sales pitches that will change that."

House Minority Leader John Boehner (R, Ohio) noted that the administration's own Medicare actuaries projected that the overhaul would raise health care costs by hundreds of billions of dollars over a decade, though the White House continues to cite Congressional Budget Office figures showing that reforms will cut deficits in the long run.

"President Obama's health care PR push took on an air of the absurd today when he warned health insurance companies not to 'drive up costs' at an event designed to tout a law that raises costs," Boehner said in a statement.

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