Tort reform for obstetricians fails in the Senate

A similar bill targeting help to emergency physicians is likely to be offered next.

By Tanya Albert amednews correspondent — Posted March 8, 2004

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Organized medicine viewed a tort reform measure in the U.S. Senate aimed at helping obstetrician-gynecologists "a good first step," but the bill couldn't get a foot off the ground.

Despite the legislation's narrow focus, supporters didn't have the 60 votes needed to block a Democratic filibuster. By a 48-45 vote on Feb. 24, Senators rejected the idea of limiting debate on the measure, which called for capping pain and suffering awards in medical malpractice cases against ob-gyns to $250,000.

After the defeat, the American Medical Association, which has made tort reform its No. 1 legislative priority, said it will be "relentless" in continuing to pursue reforms for all physicians. "This will pass because patients will demand action," said AMA President Donald J. Palmisano, MD. "The question is when. The longer it takes, the more likely patients will be harmed."

Members of the Assn. of Trial Lawyers of America, who have been fighting against tort reform, disagree. They say passing reform that includes a cap would harm patients and not solve physicians' problems. "This is a victory for women and their children who are victims of the most serious medical malpractice and a defeat for the insurance industry and those trying to take away the rights of American families," said ATLA spokesman Carlton Carl.

Sens. Judd Gregg (R, N.H.) and John Ensign (R, Nev.) introduced the specialty-specific Healthy Mothers and Healthy Babies Access to Care Act after Senate Republicans last year were unable to pass tort reform that would have offered the protection of a $250,000 noneconomic damages cap to all physicians.

After failing to come up with the votes needed to pass tort reform for all physicians, proponents of the bill hoped that they could pass legislation that focused on a specialty that has been among the hardest hit by rising insurance premiums. If the bill had passed, it would have been sent to conference committee, where lawmakers could hash out differences with a measure that passed the House in March 2003. The House bill includes a $250,000 noneconomic damages cap for all physicians.

Although this attempt failed, the issue isn't going away.

A spokeswoman for Gregg said a tort reform bill aimed at helping emergency physicians -- one of the other hardest-hit specialties -- could be introduced as early as late March.

Continuing to introduce specialty-specific legislation is one way to keep the medical liability issue before the American public, Dr. Palmisano said. "It continues to allow Americans to see that there is no reason for this continued resistance to proven reforms."

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