Both Easley and Edwards have vocally supported state and federal legislation, which would give patients and doctors more flexibility in choosing health care options.
Edwards said he is co-sponsoring a bipartisan patients' bill of rights in the U.S. Senate with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. "(The bill of rights) will put the law on the side of the patients and doctors and health care providers instead of the big HMOs and insurance companies, where it has been for a very long time," Edwards said.
Easley is pushing for similar legislation in the N.C. General Assembly.
Edwards said one advantage of his Senate bill is the increased freedom it affords patients to choose their own doctors. "You can go directly to a specialist," he said. "And women can go to an OB/GYN instead of having to go through a gatekeeper."
Edwards added that the bill would enable parents to designate pediatricians as their children's primary caregivers. Patients also could visit a neighborhood emergency room instead of having to travel to a more distant facility designated by a health care provider.
Edwards said his bill also provides for enforcement of the rights it extends to patients, including a system of internal and external appeals and the right to sue an insurance provider after appeals are exhausted.
Easley, while lauding Edwards' Senate push for patients' rights, said similar reform is needed at the state level. "We can't afford to wait any longer in North Carolina (for congressional action)," he said.
Easley said that while there are many good managed-care companies, it is those that are difficult to deal with that the state bill targets. "Companies that want to practice medicine rather than insurance are going to have to accept the liability as well as the profits," Easley said.
Each leader expressed confidence that both bills would pass, and that President Bush would sign a national bill if it came to his desk. Both men said their proposals emulate the Texas measure that Bush signed into law when he was governor of that state.
Easley said he expects the state bill to be considered in 30 to 60 days and to become law sometime this summer.
Edwards said he expects to take up the national bill sometime over the next few months on the Senate floor.
Easley and Edwards were joined by several doctors and one patient, offering horror stories about their experiences with insurance companies.
Dr. Elizabeth Kanof, a dermatologist and past-president of the N.C. Medical Society, said an HMO had denied her requests that a patient with a slipped disk be sent to a neurosurgeon. "I was overwhelmed by the fact ... that the HMO did not have enough confidence in my description of the problem on the phone to let me exercise my judgment."
Another panel member, Charlette Cooper, secretary of the Communication Workers of America Local 3611, said her HMO plan, which is self-paid, not employer-provided, put various riders on her coverage because of previous minor conditions, and that she must now pay out-of-pocket for drugs similar to her past prescriptions.
"I have a new definition for rider," Cooper said. "You're going to have to ride this out on your own."
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