Senators reject tort reform again

Doctors warn that the vote will hurt patients' access to physicians.

By Tanya Albert amednews correspondent — Posted April 26, 2004

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The third time wasn't the charm for medical liability reform.

The U.S. Senate on April 7 rejected an attempt to cap noneconomic damages at $250,000 in medical malpractice lawsuits involving emergency physicians and obstetrician-gynecologists. Physicians in these two specialties are among those hit hardest by rising liability insurance premiums.

In a 49-48 vote, the bill fell short of the 60 votes needed to stop a filibuster led by Democrats.

This is the third bill brought forward this session by Republican lawmakers who support physicians' efforts to control surging liability insurance costs through a cap on pain-and-suffering awards.

Last year, the Senate voted against a $250,000 cap in all medical malpractice cases, and earlier this year, there weren't enough votes to stop a filibuster on a bill for ob-gyns.

Tort reform proponents are disappointed but remain optimistic.

"In the end, the voice of the people will break through the trial lawyers' smokescreens," said American Medical Association Trustee J. Edward Hill, MD.

"The strides our country has made in reducing maternal and infant mortality through good prenatal care are being jeopardized," the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists said in a statement.

More than half of the emergency physicians who took part in a survey last fall said there's a shortage of on-call specialists.

"Our nation's broken medical liability system is causing some patients to be transported out of state for medical care, which can mean life or death when time is of the essence," said American College of Emergency Physicians President J. Brian Hancock, MD.

Democrats who oppose caps acknowledged that physicians and patients face a real problem. But they and trial lawyers said noneconomic damage caps are unfair to patients and won't stop insurance rate hikes.

"Let's make the practice of medicine safer," said Sen. Dick Durbin (D, Ill.). "Let's reduce the number of frivolous lawsuits. ... Let's hold insurance companies responsible for overcharging."

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