Medical liability reform closer to House passage

The measure would limit noneconomic damages to $250,000 but faces strong opposition in the Senate and from President Obama.

By Doug Trapp — Posted May 23, 2011

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The House Energy and Commerce Committee on May 11 approved a medical liability reform bill that would cap both noneconomic and punitive damages, among other changes.

Rep. Phil Gingrey, MD (R, Ga.), the primary sponsor, said the measure would refocus health care spending on patients and physicians by limiting the potential payout for pursuing frivolous lawsuits against physicians.

"Democrats, Republicans and even President Obama all agree that this country needs real, meaningful medical liability reform," Dr. Gingrey said.

The American Medical Association supports the bill, said AMA President Cecil B. Wilson, MD. Many physicians pay $150,000 or more in annual medical liability insurance premiums, which has led to reduced access to care, especially for higher-risk specialties, he said. On May 10, the AMA launched a print advertisement campaign in support of the bill that ran in two Washington, D.C., political trade publications. The ad cites statistics supporting the need for liability reform, including that doctors need to defend themselves against all medical liability actions even though 64% of claims in 2009 were dropped, withdrawn or dismissed.

Rep. Henry Waxman (D, Calif.), the committee's highest-ranking Democrat, said the bill would unfairly cap damage awards for people with disfiguring injuries or lifelong pain from medical injuries. Also, it would trump state medical liability reform laws, which is why the National Conference of State Legislatures opposes the bill.

"I cannot understand why the party that champions states' rights on virtually all legislation wants to nullify states' rights on medical malpractice and liability," Waxman said.

But House Energy and Commerce Committee Chair Fred Upton (R, Mich.) called the existing state medical liability reform laws a "fragmented patchwork of policies that jeopardize access to care and impose added costs to the American people."

The measure would reduce federal health care spending by more than $50 billion over a decade by encouraging physicians and other health professionals to order fewer medical services and reducing medical liability insurance premiums, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

The bill would achieve the savings in part by:

  • Enacting a $250,000 cap on noneconomic damages and a cap on punitive damages at the larger of $250,000 or twice economic damages.
  • Establishing a three-year statute of limitations from the date of the injury's discovery for most medical lawsuits.
  • Exempting products approved by the Food and Drug Administration from being the subject of punitive damages in medical lawsuits.

The committee approved the measure on a nearly party-line 30-20 vote. One Democrat -- Rep. Jim Matheson of Utah -- supported the bill while two Republicans -- Reps. Lee Terry of Nebraska and Morgan Griffith of Virginia -- voted against it. The House Judiciary Committee had approved its version of the bill on Feb. 16.

Democrats offered 14 amendments, including one that would have increased the noneconomic damages cap to $1 million. All but one were rejected -- an amendment by Rep. John Dingell (D, Mich.) that would allow punitive awards against someone who allowed a drug, device or other medical product to be mislabeled or changed.

Dingell, however, voted against final committee passage of the bill. Republicans and Democrats support some level of liability reform legislation, he said, but he asserted that this bill as it stands has no chance of adoption in the Democratic-controlled Senate. Also, Obama opposes capping damages in lawsuits. GOP committee leaders are not yet reaching out to Democrats to develop a compromise bill.

"Why are we continuing to waste our time on a piece of legislation that has no future?" Dingell asked.

The measure heads to the House floor next. A consideration date had not been set at this article's deadline.

Upton said his committee's next alternative to the national health reform law will be a bill to allow Americans to purchase health insurance across state lines. GOP leaders see the move as a way to offer greater health insurance choices without increasing government regulation, but Democrats say such a bill would reduce consumer protections against unscrupulous health insurance companies.

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