MALPRACTICE CAPS: Battle Intensifies in Anticipation of New Bill
Consumers groups and malpractice lawyers are "sens[ing] an opportunity" in their efforts to raise California's medical malpractice cap as Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa (D-Los Angeles) plans to introduce such a bill to the Assembly Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, the San Francisco Chronicle reports. Since its passage in 1975, the $250,000 cap included in the Medical Injury Compensation Reform Act (MICRA) has pitted a powerful collection of "heavyweights" -- doctors, lawyers, hospitals and the insurance industry -- against each other. "Inflation has reduced the purchasing power of the $250,000 cap in 1976 to about $84,000," said Mark Robinson, president of Consumer Attorneys of California, an group that is lobbying to raise the cap. At the same time, he said, physicians' salaries have climbed from $56,000 to $200,000. Many attorneys won't take on plaintiffs' cases because the $250,000 award is not very enticing for large, successful firms.
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"Not surprisingly," the Chronicle reports, doctors see a different side. "At a time when physicians' incomes are dropping, when hospitals are running in the red, medical groups are teetering on the brink of insolvency, it would be a disaster to give trial lawyers a payback that would only benefit them," said Dr. Jack Lewin, chief executive of the California Medical Association. And fear of skyrocketing malpractice bills has sent not-for-profit clinics scurrying to the side of those supporting the MICRA cap. Operators such as Planned Parenthood and Community Health Foundation of East Los Angeles have taken MICRA's side. Planned Parenthood lobbyist Katherine Kneer argues that "MICRA has been good for women's health in California," noting that the law "stemmed a tide of obstetricians and gynecologists leaving the state in the early 1980s." She said, "It is naive to think that the medical profession can absorb increased costs without harm to patients." Jamie Court of Consumers for Quality Care said estimates of rising state costs - - one of which said raising the cap would increase state costs by $6 billion annually -- are "ludicrous." He said, "Malpractice costs are less than one-half of one percent of the nation's medical bill. It's a pittance to protect against medical negligence ... Personally, in this age of HMOs, I think we could use a little defensive medicine" (Russell, 5/6).