Tort reform passes again in the House

Physicians vow to keep up the pressure for Senate passage.

By Tanya Albert amednews correspondent — Posted June 7, 2004

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There's a new score in the movement to pass tort reform in the 2003-04 congressional session: House 2, Senate 0.

The House in May passed a bill that includes a $250,000 cap on noneconomic damage awards in medical malpractice cases. It's the second time this legislative session that the House has voted to implement a national cap. The Senate has rejected similar measures three times in the past year.

"House passage sends a clear message to the Senate that it must act," said American Medical Association President Donald J. Palmisano, MD. "It shows it's not a forgotten issue. It shows that the American public understands the need for medical liability reform."

The AMA will continue to fight for Senate passage of the tort reform bill and will keep pushing for patient safety legislation, which also has stalled in the Senate, he said.

Proponents say a noneconomic damages cap is needed to keep liability insurance rates under control. The AMA identifies 19 states as experiencing a liability crisis and says another 25 are showing warning signs.

Last month's 229-197 vote was mainly along party lines, with House Republicans generally supporting the measure and Democrats generally voting against it. The tally was nearly identical to the March 2003 vote.

"The House has passed the medical liability reform legislation eight times since 1995, only to see the issue stall in the Senate," said Christian Shalgian, chair of the Health Coalition on Liability and Access, which includes more than 50 organizations representing doctors, hospitals, pharmaceutical companies, employers and health insurers. "It's time for the Senate to break the logjam and get something accomplished before more patients are denied the care they need."

Opponents acknowledge that physicians are facing an insurance problem but said the cap would not lower rates and would harm injured patients.

Carlton Carl, a spokesman for the Assn. of Trial Lawyers of America, said it was a "ludicrous misuse" of time to again pass the measure.

"The House leadership decided to declare Groundhog Day -- a la the Bill Murray movie -- to advance its partisan political agenda by passing again ... legislation that would penalize and take away the legal rights of patients most seriously injured by medical malpractice," Carl said. "As it should, the Senate, except for its partisan leadership, will ignore this ridiculous grandstanding that benefits only special, selfish corporate interests."

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