House passes bill limiting medical malpractice awards

Friday, March 14, 2003

WASHINGTON -- Responding to doctors' complaints about soaring insurance costs, House Republicans pushed through legislation to limit jury awards in malpractice cases.

By a 229-196 vote, the House passed a bill Thursday that would cap noneconomic damages, such as compensation for loss of a limb or sight, at $250,000. The bill would not limit compensation for medical bills, funeral expenses and other economic damages.

States could pass legislation to exceed the bill's cap, but would have to have some sort of limit in place.

In the Senate, where lawmakers from both parties have expressed reservations about the limits, the bill faces an uncertain future.

"This is a huge day for those of us fighting for medical justice," said the bill's author, Rep. Jim Greenwood, R-Pa.

Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La., said the House "stood up for the hidden victims" and so should the Senate.

"They are the doctor who has invested his whole life into helping others only to be forced into retirement because he can't afford his medical liability premiums, or the pregnant woman who wants to have a natural childbirth but is forced to undergo a C-section instead because her ob-gyn doesn't want to take on the risks associated with natural childbirth," said Tauzin, the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

President Bush, who appealed in his State of the Union address in January for limits on what juries can award, celebrated the passage.

"Today's House vote is an important step toward creating a liability system that fairly compensates those who are truly harmed, punishes egregious misconduct without driving good doctors out of medicine and improves access to quality affordable health care by reducing health care costs," Bush said in a statement.

18 states' crisis

The issue of medical liability has been at the forefront for months. The American Medical Association, which represents doctors, has said that 18 states are in a crisis because of the liability problem. Doctors have taken to protests and rallies to show their displeasure.

Doctors in Florida, Mississippi and West Virginia temporarily stopped some patient services. Last month, doctors in New Jersey withheld routine treatments for several days to protest ballooning malpractice rates.

Last summer in Nevada, doctors temporarily closed the top level trauma center in Las Vegas, forcing critically injured patients to be transferred.

There have been numerous reports of doctors dropping high-risk specialties such as obstetrics to lower their liability risks.

In Congress, there is agreement about the increasing problem. Democrats argue, however, that caps will do little to combat rising premiums and will instead increase profits of the insurance industry.

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, said the measure was "an insurance giveaway bill."

"This is not going to bring doctors into rural and urban America," she said.

In addition to the cap on noneconomic damages, punitive damages -- those that punish a physician for serious mistakes -- would be limited to twice the amount of economic damages awarded or $250,000, whichever is greater.

The legislation would restrict patients' ability to file lawsuits over old cases and set limits on lawyers' fees. The bill would affect not just doctors but also hospitals, nursing homes and other health providers.

Democrats contend the limits are unfair to the thousands of victims of medical errors and their families.

Donna Christian-Christensen, the delegate for the Virgin Islands and a physician, called the bill "another wolf in lamb's clothing."

"Health care professionals need to see through this sham," the Democrat said. "It's no help at all. Doctors are but pawns in what is clearly special interest legislation."

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