Dems use filibuster to thwart bill limiting malpractice suits

Thursday, July 10, 2003

WASHINGTON -- Senate Democrats on Wednesday killed legislation that would have restricted the rights of medical malpractice victims who seek monetary damages.

The Democrats used a filibuster to thwart a bill that the Bush administration said was needed to halt frivolous lawsuits and ease a health care crisis.

The 49-48 vote was 11 short of the 60 needed to overcome Democratic objections. The outcome fell largely along party lines, and both sides sought political gain in the bill's wreckage.

"Time and time again this Senate races to protect special interest groups and forgets the families and children and elderly people across America who are the victims of" medical errors, said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill. He disputed claims that malpractice caps would reduce insurance costs, and he attacked the measure as an attempt to help the American Medical Association, HMOs, drug companies and the manufacturers of medical devices.

President Bush, who has made legal reform a priority, issued a statement expressing disappointment. "The nation's medical liability system is badly broken, and access to quality health care for Americans is endangered by frivolous and abusive lawsuits," he said. "The medical liability crisis is driving good doctors out of medicine, and leaving patients in many communities without access to both basic and specialty medical services."

The measure, similar to a bill that cleared the House earlier this year, would have limited non-economic damages, commonly known as pain and suffering, to $250,000. Punitive damages would be capped at the greater of $250,000 or twice the amount of economic damages, which cover medical expenses, loss of wages, funeral expenses and similar costs. States would be permitted to enact higher limits.

Additionally, the measure called for limiting the amount of money attorneys could pocket if they work on a case on a contingency fee.

In many respects, the bill seemed doomed to failure from the outset. Republicans brought it to the floor without committee hearings or debate, steps that often lead to progress toward bipartisanship.

At the same time, the clash of powerful, competing special interests was evident throughout the debate.

The AMA, American Association of Hospitals and American Insurers Association, traditional Republican allies and heavy donors to GOP campaigns, all supported the measure.

The Association of Trial Lawyers of America, a reliable ally of Democrats and major donor to their campaigns, opposed it.

The vote "could be a very potent political issue" next year, particularly in states the AMA has identified as suffering from a medical malpractice crisis, said Sen. George Allen, R-Va., chairman of the Senate GOP campaign committee.

But Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., a trial lawyer before entering politics, and a presidential hopeful, sounded eager to argue the other side before the voters.

"We should protect good doctors and the patients who depend on them," said Edwards, who broke off presidential campaigning to return to the Capitol and cast his vote on the measure. "but we shouldn't pad insurance company profits and hurt people who already have suffered immensely."

Republicans saw it differently.

"Almost one in three physicians in my state of Missouri are considering leaving their practices altogether because they cannot afford" the cost of medical malpractice premiums, said Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo. "...The cause of that quite frankly is the unrestrained plaintiffs' legal actions asserting all sorts of noneconomic and economic damages."

Both during debate on the Senate floor, and in news conferences around the Capitol complex, both sides brought victims of inadequate medical care to Washington to buttress their arguments.

Republicans repeatedly pointed to individuals who suffered disabling injuries after failing to find needed emergency treatment at nearby hospitals because the needed specialists no longer practiced -- an attempt to demonstrate a need to restrain the price of malpractice insurance.

For their part, Democrats showcased victims of malpractice, men, women and children grievously injured through medical errors -- hoping to undermine the GOP claim that a $250,000 cap was the maximum that should be allowed, no matter how grievous the impairment.

On the vote, 45 Democrats, two Republicans and one independent voted to bottle up the bill. Forty-nine Republicans were in favor of advancing it.

Durbin and Sen. Lindsey Graham. R-S.C., outlined an alternative that would have relied on a series of actions to reduce malpractice premiums. They proposed lifting antitrust exemptions that insurance companies enjoy for malpractice insurance, providing tax credits for doctors and hospitals hardhit by rising premiums, and using a voluntary nationwide program to report medical errors. Their alternative also included sanctions for lawyers who file unwarranted suits.

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: