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A stronger HMO bill

The House leadership should listen to two dissident Republicans _ one a dentist, the other a surgeon _ who say patients need more protection from their HMOs.

When Georgia Republican Charlie Norwood talks, House Speaker Dennis Hastert should listen. Norwood is the leader of a group of dissident House Republicans who announced last week they are joining with Democrats to back a stronger HMO bill than the one Hastert and the Republican leadership have in mind. A staunch conservative, Norwood is a dentist with 20 years' experience. His co-leader in this principled insurrection, Rep. Greg Ganske, R-Iowa, is a surgeon by training.

"We need a law on the books that will protect patients," Norwood said, explaining why he and at least nine other Republicans broke ranks to support a bipartisan alternative President Clinton has endorsed. Along with the president, the House Republicans are calling on Hastert to give the measure a fair hearing when Congress reconvenes next month.

Hastert should take the doctors' advice. In a contentious debate already sullied by heavy-handed lobbying and misleading advertising from the medical industry, it should mean something to Hastert that some of his colleagues with firsthand knowledge of the medical system believe a stronger bill is the best antidote to what ails managed health care.

Norwood's bill, hashed out with Michigan Democrat John Dingell, would extend protections to all 161-million Americans with private health insurance, not merely to the quarter of that population with employer-backed, self-insured plans. It would guarantee coverage for emergency care and allow women direct access to obstetricians and gynecologists. It also would give patients the right to sue their health plans when they are improperly denied care, though punitive damages would be off-limits in certain cases. The measure is far more comprehensive _ and patient-focused _ than either the Senate bill passed last month or the limited version Hastert is said to favor.

Unfortunately, it has already drawn the same kind of partisan sniping and special-interest fire that caused Norwood's group to break off in the first place. Within hours of the group's announcement, Republican lawmakers close to Hastert were urging business groups to organize their employees in opposition to the bipartisan plan. So far, Hastert has not promised to call the bipartisan bill up for a hearing.

Hastert and the House leadership need to decide what their priorities will be. Do they truly want to enact responsible legislation on patients' rights, taxes, the budget and other crucial issues? Or are they more concerned with posturing to the public and pandering to special interests? Their response to the knowledgeable Republican House members pushing for serious patient protections will go a long way toward answering those questions.