BY SANDY THEIS
Enquirer Columbus Bureau
COLUMBUS -- Democratic candidates for U.S. Senate, Ohio governor and assorted legislative races held a rare joint press conference Wednesday to urge the GOP-controlled General Assembly to return from its summer recess and take up the task of reforming HMOs.
Yet Senate President Richard Finan, R-Evendale, said lawmakers aren't changing their schedule, and he said the public doesn't want them to.
"If this is such a big issue, where's my mail?" Mr. Finan asked. In the past two years, he said he has received just two letters from constituents about managed care.
Democrats are raising the issue, he said, "because some pollster out there told them that this is a big issue."
If such logic holds, then Republican gubernatorial candidate Bob Taft must be reading the same polls.
After Lee Fisher, Mr. Taft's Democratic opponent in the race, unveiled his plan to make managed-care plans more patient friendly, Mr. Taft unveiled a nearly identical one. When Mr. Fisher urged GOP leaders to return to work on the plan, Mr. Taft sent leaders a letter urging them to move "as early as possible this year" on the Taft plan.
Since sending the letter, Mr. Finan said Mr. Taft has not communicated with him on the subject.
Meanwhile, Mr. Fisher is quickly making HMO reform a top theme of his campaign.
His campaign has been circulating petitions that urge legislative leaders to pass his so-called Patient Bill of Rights, and he plans to deliver them to the General Assembly next month.
"These campaigns are all about leadership," Mr. Fisher told the news conference. "Are we willing to talk -- or are we willing to act?"
Taft spokesman Brett Buerck called the news conference "election-year grandstanding," and noted that Democrats have yet to introduce an HMO-reform bill. "So that begs the question: What was today's event all about?" he said.
Democrats said that drafting problems delayed introduction of the bill, but said one will be introduced by the end of the week. Mr. Fisher and Mr. Taft have called for legislation that would require medical directors for Ohio HMOs be licensed to practice medicine; establish independent panels to review denials of coverage; and allow patients to sue HMOs -- just as they can sue doctors -- over harm from negligent care.
Similar jockeying is under way in Congress, where Republicans and Democrats have offered rival plans.
The emphasis on health care as a potent political issue is in stark contrast to Congress' 1994 defeat of President Clinton's efforts to overhaul the nation's health-care system.
Mr. Finan declined to pass judgment on either the Fisher or the Taft plan in its entirety, but said some aspects of both have been enacted into law, and others are contained in pending bills.
Any future bills will be considered, he said, although he did say he opposes the proposal that would allow patients to sue HMOs. "All that does is provide money to attorneys and not improve patient care," he said.
The House and Senate tentatively are scheduled to meet just two days in September and October, then return after the November elections.
In addition to the statewide elections, half of the seats in the 33-member state Senate and all of the 99 seats in the Ohio House will be on the November ballot.