Senate Democrats hit the road last week on a drive to give patients new rights against managed care insurers, hearing complaints at a Northern Virginia hospital from people denied medical treatment recommended by their doctors.

Democratic Policy Committee members visited Inova Fairfax Hospital in Falls Church "to send a direct message to Capitol Hill," said Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (N.D.), committee co-chairman. The group plans several "field hearings" across the country to press Republicans to pass legislation allowing patients to see specialists and sue HMOs.

The issue is one of the Democrats' top priorities heading into the 2000 election season and is the subject of a party-sponsored television advertisement targeting 17 areas.

Dorgan, Sens. Charles S. Robb (Va.) and Jeff Bingaman (N.M.) heard from the mother of Matthew Gross, a 4-year-old from Hampton, Va., who temporarily lost his hearing and suffered severe speech defects because his family's HMO would not refer him to a specialist, despite prolonged illness.

Also testifying was Darlene L. Williams, a Newport News woman whose insurer will not pay for treatments a physician recommended because her rare cancer is termed incurable. Other hearing sites include North Dakota, Chicago and Valhalla, N.Y.

Robb, who faces a tough reelection challenge from former Virginia governor George Allen (R), sponsored an unsuccessful amendment to the bill's Senate version last summer to give women greater access to obstetricians and gynecologists.

"Mr. Allen aspires to join a caucus that is preventing us from getting a decent patients' bill of rights," Dorgan charged.

State GOP executive director Ed Matricardi dismissed the event as a political sideshow masquerading as a hearing. "A campaign event by any other name is a campaign event," he quipped.

Dole to Endorse Bush

Elizabeth Dole, who ended her bid for the Republican nomination in October after raising a paltry $5 million--less than a tenth of what George W. Bush had raised at the time--is set to endorse the Texas governor this week.

Associates of Dole and Bush told the Associated Press she would endorse him Tuesday in New Hampshire and make two campaign stops with him in Iowa, the states with the first two presidential contests.

Dole associates said they hope an endorsement will elevate her chance of becoming Bush's running mate, although officials in both camps say no guarantees have been made and that Bush is said to favor prospective running mates who have been elected officeholders. Dole, a two-time Cabinet member and former president of the American Red Cross, had not run for elected office before seeking the nomination last year.