Policy Documents

Patients' Rights: A Double Standard

John Hoff –
December 1, 1999

In this brief analysis, John Hoff argues that as everyone “knows,” the Patients’ Bill of Rights would allow members of Health Maintenance Organizations to sue their plans. What most people probably don’t know is that members already can sue their HMOs under current law. So what’s going on?

What the bill would really do is encourage trial lawyers to flood the courts with malpractice-like suits over what are essentially contract disputes. These tort lawsuits would allege noneconomic damages (such as pain and suffering) and seek punitive damages. Given the willingness of juries to award multimillion-dollar judgments, the liability for health plans and employers could be huge. Health insurance premiums would soar as a result, pricing even more Americans out of the market and leaving them uninsured. Ironically, although the bill would allow people to bring tort lawsuits against private-sector plans, it does not grant similar rights to Medicare beneficiaries or to those participating in tbe government’s health plan for federal workers. If it’s good for private plans, why isn’t the right to litigate in this way also good for govemmentsponsored insurance?