House passes liability reform bill -- once again

But Senate passage remains questionable.

By Mike Norbut — Posted Aug. 15, 2005

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In a prelude that has become familiar to physicians, the House of Representatives last month, in a 230-194 vote, passed a tort reform bill that would limit noneconomic damages in medical liability cases to $250,000.

The House has passed similar measures several times in recent years, and doctors this time hope for a new ending in the Senate, where tort reform has died on several occasions. But the outlook is grim, because there is still not enough support to overcome a Democratic filibuster that has held the measure up in the past.

But AMA leaders vowed to continue lobbying. "Skyrocketing medical liability premiums -- $200,000 a year or more in high-risk specialties -- are forcing physicians to limit services, retire early or move to states with reforms," said AMA President-elect William G. Plested, MD. "Reforms, including a quarter-million-dollar cap on noneconomic damages, have been working in California for nearly 30 years. The Senate must act to give the rest of our nation that same relief."

While physicians and Republicans have generally supported tort reform, trial lawyers and Democrats have generally opposed it.

Ken Suggs, president of the Assn. of Trial Lawyers of America, said the House bill does far more to protect insurance and pharmaceutical companies than physicians. He said, "Congress showed once again where its true priorities lie -- with the big insurance and pharmaceutical companies and their well-heeled CEOs."

In addition to capping noneconomic damages, the bill -- the Help Efficient, Accessible, Low-cost, Timely Healthcare (HEALTH) Act -- would limit punitive damages in medical liability cases to the greater of $250,000 or twice the amount of economic damages. It also proposes to limit contingency fees for attorneys and to protect pharmaceutical and medical device manufacturers from punitive damages if they comply with Food and Drug Administration regulations.

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