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Ari Fleischer Briefs on Bush Tax Plan, Patients' Bill of Rights

Aired February 6, 2001 - 12:07 p.m. ET


LEON HARRIS, CNN ANCHOR: We want to go stay in Washington right now, and go see what the word is from the White House. Press Secretary Ari Fleischer beginning his briefing early this afternoon.

QUESTION: (JOINED IN PROGRESS) ... Karl Rove and Congressman Norwood and what part, if any, that might have played in Congressman Norwood removing his support or withdrawing his support for the Patients' Bill of Rights that was rolled out on Capitol Hill today?

ARI FLEISCHER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Well, I will allow, of course, Congressman Norwood to speak for himself on this matter. But it's part of our reaching out to Congress on an issue that is very important. Congressman Norwood is one of the lead people on Capitol Hill on the issue of patient bill of rights, and so our staff has been talking with him. They met with him yesterday to talk to him about the president's proposal on patient bill of rights. And I think it's a very positive sign of the progress we anticipate we're going to make on a patient bill of rights that a leader of it, Congressman Norwood, is going to be working with us as well.

QUESTION: Did you ask him to dial back on his support for the bill that's being rolled out in Congress today and jump on board your train?

FLEISCHER: We emphasized to the congressman, as well as to others, that the president deserves his chance to put forward a patient bill of rights that is going to be strong and bipartisan, and we expressed to the congressman our desire to work with him on it, and he was pleased to work with us on it.

QUESTION: So in other words, "We'd appreciate it if you don't get in our way."

FLEISCHER: No, I think it's not a question of getting in the way. It's early in the president's term, and he is entitled to make his proposals on patient bill of rights and to work with the appropriate leaders who can help get it done.

QUESTION: I have a hard time, though, telling any difference between what was proposed and the principles laid out by the president.

QUESTION: Can you give a couple of examples of where there's any light between the two proposals?


FLEISCHER: I think that's an encouraging sign. I think that we are very hopeful that this year will finally be the year that we can enact a patient bill of rights into law and...

QUESTION: And this bill, specifically, does he support it? And if not...

FLEISCHER: Well, we're going to wait to see...


QUESTION: ... between the principles he outlined and what was outlined today?

FLEISCHER: We're going to wait to see the specifics of the bill as they are drawn up, as we would with any legislation on the Hill, patient bill of rights or otherwise. So we will take a look at that. But the president is very concerned about getting a patient bill of rights done -- enacted into law this year, as there are a number of people, Republican and Democrat.

QUESTION: Why not support this one? Why talk about "we're doing our own" and try to get lawmakers to stay -- as you say, that we deserve a chance to work on our own bill? Why not jump on this one? What about this bill is not right?

FLEISCHER: Well, I'm going to wait till we see the details of this bill, but there are likely to be many things in this bill that we think are right and that we are going to be supportive of. But I will await to see what exact language is in the bill before commenting further.

QUESTION: Ganske specifically said that the principles that they outlined are the same as the president's principles. Do you agree with that?

FLEISCHER: Again, I want to review the exact language of the bill in question. But let me walk you through some of the specifics of the president's principles on patient bill of rights, the things that he believes in that he thinks needs to be done. And he will sign a strong patient bill of rights that provides patient protections, and he thinks we can do so without driving up the cost of health care and without making employers drop health care coverage.

We want to make sure that patients have meaningful remedies that are coupled with responsible tort reform. We want to work with members of Congress to reach a bipartisan compromise on that issue. And other provisions we're going to look for to make sure that consumers -- health consumers -- have the protections they need; such as, for example, a woman's right to go see her ob-gyn without going through a gatekeeper first, the right of a patient to go to the emergency room without first having to dial an 800 number. FLEISCHER: Those are some of the classic patient protections that we think could have been signed into law, if the political climate had been different in Washington. We think this is the year to get it done.

QUESTION: How wouldn't it be fair, though, for people to conclude that since those principles are so similar, if not identical to what was articulated today on the Hill, that all this maneuvering and Mr. Norwood being over here has less to do with the Patients' Bill of Rights than with Mr. McCain and the president and politics?

FLEISCHER: Well, I think it has to do with -- and again, I would refer you to Congressman Norwood. He can explain his reasons. But I think it's a healthy sign that members of Congress are going to be working with the president and others to enact a patient bill of rights into law.

QUESTION: Does the president go...


QUESTION: Ari, elaborate on the tort reform. Is that likely to be an impediment to Democrats signing on to this bill? Is has been in the past?


FLEISCHER: Well actually, the proposal in question today has tort reform attached to it.

QUESTION: But do you mean tort reform...

QUESTION: You have a proposal...

FLEISCHER: The Patients' Bill of Rights that is being advanced today has tort reform as part of it.

QUESTION: When you talk about tort reform, do you mean maybe other types of tort reform, general limits on the medical malpractice suits and so forth?

FLEISCHER: I think we're getting ahead of where the president is on this. He's going to work with the Congress to enact a patient bill of rights that doesn't drive up costs and has meaningful remedies.

Let me remind you that...

QUESTION: You didn't think this bill would drive up costs?

FLEISCHER: I said we can have a patient bill of rights without driving up costs.

QUESTION: The one that was proposed today, do you think it would drive up costs? Or in other words, is...

FLEISCHER: I have to look at the details. QUESTION: You just told us that you...

FLEISCHER: Some of the details, I haven't looked at at all.

QUESTION: Does it have the kind of tort reform in it that the president thinks is needed to hold down costs?

FLEISCHER: We're at the very beginning of the process. The president is encouraged by the legislation because it addresses an important issue, which is tort reform. And there will be a variety of ideas suggested from the Hill on what the best way of enacting meaningful tort reform is. And we would be prepared to work with a number of people to get it done.

QUESTION: Will you work with the people, including the ones who put the bill forward today?

FLEISCHER: Absolutely, we will.

QUESTION: But why are you asking lawmakers not to go with them, to stay with us?

FLEISCHER: Well, again, I think the president is just in a position now where we want to begin the process, begin this year -- we're working directly with some of the more influential people who have been part of patient bill of rights and in the past, and we'll continue to do that.

QUESTION: You said something about -- this is the last question I have. There must be something about these people or the proposal that these people are supporting that you don't like or you would have jumped aboard it. Is there some reason you want to put forward your own legislation?

FLEISCHER: We will always want to put forward our own legislation. And in so doing, we're going to look for legislation that is close to ours and we're going to work with the cosponsors.


FLEISCHER: Well, it very well may be. There are several aspects of it that are very close to the president's principles, and that's an encouraging sign.

Now, we view what's happening today on the Hill is very helpful to the process and helpful to finally getting a patient bill of rights enacted into law.


QUESTION: Does the president have a problem with the $5 million cap proposed in this bill? And would he like to see that cap far lower than that?

FLEISCHER: I think it's too soon to start speculating about exact numbers of caps. QUESTION: Certainly the insurance industry has come out and said this cap is extraordinarily high.

FLEISCHER: Well, I think it's very helpful that this patient bill of rights has a cap. And it's too soon to speculate on the number.

QUESTION: Ari, does he think it's fine?

FLEISCHER: I have discussed the number with him.

QUESTION: If it's helpful, what happened on the Hill today, why was Norwood asked not to attend today's event?

FLEISCHER: Well, again, I think the president is looking forward to working with Congressman Norwood and others on his plan.

QUESTION: So then it was not helpful, what happened on the Hill today, because you asked Norwood to stay away from the meeting.

FLEISCHER: I think it's a good sign that we can make bipartisan progress, and get a patient bill of rights enacted into law.


QUESTION: ... wants to propose his own bill in order to have substantive differences and do more on the issue than what has been introduced today, or to take credit for it?

FLEISCHER: Patient bill of rights is an idea that a lot of people are going to contribute to from both parties. There is no magical answer that any one person or any group of people are going to come up with.

To get a patient bill of rights enacted into law is going to require consensus; it's going to require a number of people coming together. It's also going to require a change in the will in Washington, so that both parties and both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue agree that this is the year to get it done. And I think that's what we're going to see this year.

QUESTION: What is the timetable for the White House sending its proposal on patients' bill of rights to the Hill?

FLEISCHER: We haven't established an exact one. We'll keep you informed of when it'll happen. But it's a priority for the president, and I think you will see it in the not too distant future.

QUESTION: Does the president also consider it a priority to cover all Americans who are enrolled in health maintenance organizations?


QUESTION: Not in the way that the Nickles bill did?

FLEISCHER: The president believes all Americans should be covered.

QUESTION: And that will be part of his proposal?

FLEISCHER: That'll be part of the principles he espouses, that's correct.

QUESTION: How would it have harmed the president's position if Congressman Norwood had followed through on his plans to cosponsor this bill?

FLEISCHER: I think congressmen decide every day whether they want to cosponsor bills or not cosponsor bills. Congressmen decide every day about whether they want to allow the president to have time to put up his proposals first. Those are the routine decisions that get made on the Hill every day.

QUESTION: Ari, why is this particular issue different? Ordinarily the president would invite a handful of people who are involved in an issue, have them come to the White House, sit down with them, talk about his principles. In this case, he peels off one member of Congress and apparently urges him not to participate in a news conference that was scheduled to talk about the new bill. I don't understand. You said the idea is to get a consensus; they seem to already have a consensus.

FLEISCHER: And Congressman Norwood, as I indicated before, is one of the more influential people in patient bill of rights legislation on the Hill, and we're very pleased that he has indicated this willingness to allow the president to put forward his plan.

QUESTION: Why not get all of the people involved in this effort up here and talk to them?

FLEISCHER: I think we've been working with a lot of people, and patient bill of rights has come up in some of the meetings the president's participated in with members of Congress. It's an issue that he's talked about before, and he's going to talk about it again, he believes it in.

QUESTION: You're leaving us with the impression that there's something here that you cannot say.


FLEISCHER: That has never happened at this podium in this room before.

QUESTION: Since I couldn't get a straight answer in the last two weeks, let me try it again, to ask the question. I know it's still off of the table, but why isn't it just a rational idea to give any role in the Middle East peace process to President Clinton, by the new administration?

FLEISCHER: We have addressed that before.

QUESTION: Will that change after the election? FLEISCHER: If it changes, we'll advise you.

QUESTION: Has there been a similar effort to engage Mr. Dingell in a supportive effort of the administration on this issue of HMO reform? He and Norwood were partners in the previous Congress, have been over the years. What role do you expect Mr. Dingell will play?

FLEISCHER: I think you can anticipate that, at the time that we move forward with patient bill of rights language, we will be engaging with members of Congress from all of the relevant committees. Mr. Dingell, of course, from the Commerce Committee. The Ways and Means Committee is involved in this. The Finance Committee is involved in this. There will be a series of important members of Congress on both sides of the aisle that we're going to work with on it, including Mr. Dingell.

QUESTION: At this point, has there been any effort to reach out to Mr. Dingell?

FLEISCHER: I really don't know the specifics. I can only tell you that congressional affairs people work with everybody up there on a very regular basis.

QUESTION: With the tax proposal not still being officially unveiled, and the public starting to digest that, would you have preferred that the people on the Hill have waited on this particular issue? One major issue at a time?

FLEISCHER: No, it doesn't work that way. Members of Congress, every day, make their proposals.

QUESTION: The public could only focus, probably, so much on some of the issues?

FLEISCHER: I think the public has the ability to focus on several important issues at one time, and taxes and health care are both important issues.

QUESTION: Energy: Senator Schumer has been calling for more help through LIHEAP for the Northeast and New York. Do you guys have any plans to put more emergency funds into LIHEAP or release that faster to help these folks who are struggling with these high costs...

FLEISCHER: The president did advocate increased funding for LIHEAP and an acceleration of the spending on LIHEAP.

FLEISCHER: The previous administration did begin the process of increasing the spend-out of LIHEAP. And so we'll be prepared to take a look at that spend-out rate and see if it's been brought to fruition, and the president would support that acceleration of the spend-out to help people get through the winter months.

QUESTION: Will he be pursuing that to try to...

FLEISCHER: I would refer you to the Department of Energy to see what that spend-out rate is and where the money stands. (CROSSTALK)

QUESTION: Ari, back on patients' rights, you may not want to get into specifics but, in general, what is the president's philosophy on limiting lawsuits?

FLEISCHER: The president believes that it's very important to allow people to have the right to sue their HMO if they did not receive the care to which they are entitled. He believes that should be done after independent review of the claims, and then it is people's right to sue.

He also believes that it's important to have a patient bill of rights and not a lawyer's right to bill. In other words, we want to have a health care delivery system that protects patients and doesn't protect lawyers first. So there's a balance that the president would like to seek. And that balance means that patients should have that right to sue, but lawyers should not have the right to change their health care system into another system where they can simply sue to make money outside of what are reasonable needs of people in the health care community.

HARRIS: You've been listening to White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer there in his daily briefing there with the press.

This is a tax week at the White House. But the -- most of the discussion this morning centered around the patients' bill of rights talk right now on Capitol Hill.

We saw this morning Senator John McCain coming out and cosponsoring -- agreeing to cosponsor and back a bill being proposed by Senator Kennedy.

The White House, though, is urging those on the Hill to go slower on that. He's -- Ari Fleischer saying the president deserves a chance to put forth his own patients' bill of rights. And therefore, he would not make much comment at all about what is now being talked about on Capitol Hill. Although, the White House is certain that it wants some sort of a tort reform and plenty of consumer protections in whatever bill does become law.

And he did say that the White House and Mr. Bush is saying that he hopes that this year is the year that some patients' bill of rights will be passed.



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