Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist To Renew Debate on Medical Malpractice Legislation in Next Three Weeks
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) said in a March 18 e-mail to political supporters that he plans to introduce in the next three weeks a bill (S 2207) that would cap some medical malpractice jury awards, CQ Today reports. The bill seeks to limit malpractice awards for trauma center workers and OB/GYNs. However, some Senate Democrats have said they will "try to derail" the legislation because they believe it would hinder courts' ability to discourage negligence by health care providers through punitive damages, according to CQ Today (Carey, CQ Today, 3/19). In February, Senate Democrats blocked a similar bill (S 2061) that would have capped noneconomic damages at $250,000 in medical malpractice lawsuits only against OB/GYNs. A cloture vote to limit debate on the bill fell short of the required 60 votes. In addition, last year, Senate Democrats defeated a broader bill (S 11) that would have capped at $250,000 noneconomic damages in suits against all physicians, HMOs, pharmaceutical companies and medical device companies (California Healthline, 2/25).
The Wall Street Journal on Tuesday examined the strategies that some physicians are using to combat "what they see as meritless malpractice" lawsuits. Some doctors have dropped their malpractice insurance altogether, and others are abandoning high-risk procedures or specialties to reduce their malpractice insurance premiums. In addition, some doctors are requiring patients to sign waivers concerning potential malpractice suits before providing care. Some doctors are also using the threat of countersuits to deter patients from filing malpractice lawsuits. North Carolina-based Medical Justice provides "insurance-like coverage for physicians to countersue patients, plaintiffs' attorneys and expert medical witnesses when a suit is thrown out of court as frivolous," the Journal reports. Physicians who are covered by the company are listed on a searchable database in an effort to ward off malpractice suits. They are also encouraged to have patients sign a waiver saying they will not sue for frivolous reasons; if a patient who signs the waiver does file a suit that is judged to be without merit, the doctor can theoretically countersue for breach of contract. The Journal reports that such aggressive tactics could "damage the doctor-patient relationship and even backfire badly." However, many doctors seem increasingly "willing to take some chances to address a situation they see as untenable," according to the Journal (Silverman, Wall Street Journal, 3/23).
In related news, Washington state doctors are reportedly mobilizing against Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) because of her stance against the malpractice bill blocked by the Senate in February. Rep. George Nethercutt (R-Wash.), who will likely seek Murray's seat in the November election, has criticized her opposition to the bill. According to Roll Call, "Republicans are sure to use the issue against Democrats nationally -- saying they are beholden to trial attorneys and unwilling to solve the crisis. But they seem to be zeroing in on Murray with special ferocity." According to Tom Curry, president of the Washington State Medical Association, "Physicians in [Washington state] have made tort reform the litmus test for (political action committee) purposes." He added, "I have seen a broader and deeper willingness on a personal basis (from doctors) to get involved than I have seen in my 22 years (of experience)" (Duran, Roll Call, 3/23).This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.