Health coalition says system reform should include liability reform

President Obama has opposed damage caps, but doctors and others are open to alternatives that don't undermine state efforts.

By Amy Lynn Sorrel — Posted July 28, 2009

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A broad coalition of physicians, patients, liability insurers and other health care entities recently submitted several proposals to Congress to ensure that medical liability reform is included in federal health system reform.

The Health Coalition on Liability and Access, of which the American Medical Association is a member, is advocating for measures it says will protect patients and doctors without interfering with states' ability to maintain or pursue reform efforts. The move comes as President Obama has expressed a willingness to work with physicians on potential liability reform options, despite his opposition to damage caps.

"There is widespread agreement that the current liability system in our country is broken and does not serve patients well," HCLA Chair Mike Stinson said in a statement. "Our reform proposals are designed to put more money in the pockets of patients, not personal injury lawyers, and to help lower health care costs by reducing defensive medicine."

The national liability reform advocacy organization in July pitched to federal lawmakers a range of suggestions that include:

  • A mandated certificate of merit from a medical expert with the filing of a lawsuit.
  • Periodic payments of damage awards that exceed $50,000.
  • Limited liability for physicians who volunteer in declared emergency or disaster situations.
  • Expert witness requirements.
  • Protections in cases involving so-called "never-events," or preventable errors identified by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services for nonpayment.

"Defensive medicine, runaway jury awards and frivolous lawsuits are unfortunate and costly symptoms of America's broken medical liability system. Without enacting effective medical liability reforms to eradicate these symptoms, we cannot truly reform the health care system," AMA President J. James Rohack, MD, said in a statement.

While the AMA continues to favor noneconomic damage caps, organized medicine also supports exploring other solutions. Those include health courts, early disclosure and compensation programs, and a liability safe harbor for physicians who follow evidence-based guidelines -- options also included in the HCLA's recent proposals.

"The goal is to keep physicians caring for patients, while still allowing access to the court system," Dr. Rohack said.

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