House panel OKs medical liability reform bill

The HEALTH Act, supported by the AMA and other organizations, heads to the House floor despite initial constitutional concerns from Texas Republicans.

By Doug Trapp — Posted Feb. 28, 2011

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The House Judiciary Committee on Feb. 16 approved a Republican medical liability reform bill after fending off more than two dozen Democratic amendments, many of which sought to weaken the bill.

The committee adopted the measure -- the Help Efficient, Accessible, Low-cost, Timely Healthcare Act of 2011 -- on a party-line vote of 18-15. The bill will head to the House floor next for final consideration.

The HEALTH Act, based on a long-time California law, would place a $250,000 cap on noneconomic damages and limit punitive damages to the greater of $250,000 or twice the amount of economic damages. The measure would set a statute of limitations on filing health care lawsuits of one year after a patient discovers -- or should have discovered -- an injury or three years after the injury, whichever occurs first.

"The House Judiciary Committee's approval of the HEALTH Act marks an important milestone for the progress of medical malpractice liability reform desperately needed in this country," said Rep. Phil Gingrey, MD (R, Ga.), the bill's primary sponsor. "Without mending this broken system, we are crippling the access to care for patients and wasting billions of valuable health care dollars."

The measure is a top priority for House Republicans and is expected to pass the chamber. However, the bill faces a difficult path through the Democratic-controlled Senate. The House has adopted similar bills numerous times before, but the Senate has never followed suit. Although President Obama has indicated that he is open to exploring medical liability reform legislation, he consistently has opposed caps on damage awards.

The American Medical Association and more than 100 other medical organizations support the bill, which had 84 House co-sponsors at this article's deadline, including two Democrats: Reps. David Scott of Georgia and Jim Matheson of Utah.

But the legislation initially ran into unexpected concerns from a few Republicans. House Judiciary Committee Chair Lamar Smith (R, Texas) began his panel's markup of the bill on Jan. 9, but he postponed consideration for a week after two fellow Texas Republicans agreed with Democrats' concerns that the HEALTH Act did not adequately respect states' rights.

The constitutions of Arizona, Arkansas, Kentucky, Pennsylvania and Wyoming ban liability damage caps, but the bill as introduced would enact caps in these states, too.

"I've got problems with that. I think it's a violation of the 10th Amendment," Rep. Ted Poe (R, Texas) said Feb. 9, citing the states' rights issue. Rep. Louie Gohmert (R, Texas) expressed similar concerns.

The legislation would allow individual states to set higher or lower caps than those authorized by the federal government. Texas has its own liability reforms that impose caps similar to California's.

Proposed amendments by Rep. Hank Johnson (D, Ga.) would have limited the HEALTH Act to cases in federal court and would have exempted states with constitutional bans on damage caps. But both amendments failed to pass on Feb. 16. Gohmert and Poe did not vote on either amendment. However, they voted in favor of the final bill.

Smith said Feb. 16 that GOP panel members were working on an amendment that would ensure the HEALTH Act "respects states' rights." Smith said it probably would be introduced when the bill reaches the House floor. A date for floor consideration had not been set at this article's deadline.

Rep. Jerry Nadler (D, N.Y.) proposed an amendment that would have allowed the bill's damage caps to increase along with the consumer inflation rate, but it also failed on Feb. 16 by a vote of 15-18.

Republican committee members approved one Democratic amendment. Rep. Bobby Scott (D, Va.) negotiated with Smith to strike a bill provision preventing plaintiffs from recovering damages twice for the same injury. The original language would have prevented a jury, for example, from awarding lost wages that already were covered by an insurance claim. Smith did not explain why he accepted the amendment.

Democrats on Feb. 16 failed to sway Republicans with other amendments supporting states' rights, expanding the law to apply to lawsuits beyond health care suits and removing the bill's punitive damages exemption for Food and Drug Administration-approved pharmaceuticals and medical devices.

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