Senate Republicans Move To Bring Medical Malpractice Bill to Floor for Vote
Senate Republicans yesterday moved to force debate and a formal vote on a bill that would cap noneconomic damages in medical malpractice lawsuits at $250,000, the Washington Post reports (Dewar, Washington Post, 7/8). Senate Democrats complained that Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) "circumvented the committee process" by taking the bill directly to the Senate floor, and they "vowed to block the bill from proceeding to a formal vote," the New York Times reports (Stolberg/Hulse, New York Times, 7/8). Senate Republicans have said they do not have the 60 votes needed to overcome a Democratic filibuster. Democrats will decide today whether to filibuster the bill; aides yesterday called that action "likely," according to the Post (Washington Post, 7/8). A vote is scheduled for tomorrow on whether to proceed with the legislation in the Senate (New York Times, 7/8). The House passed similar legislation (HR 5) earlier this year. The House bill, sponsored by Rep. Jim Greenwood (R-Pa.), would cap noneconomic damages in malpractice lawsuits at $250,000 and would allow punitive damages of $250,000 or twice the amount of economic damages, whichever is higher. The legislation covers lawsuits filed against physicians, HMOs, pharmaceutical companies and medical device companies. The bill also would allow state governments to increase or decrease the cap; the legislation would not cap economic damages, which include medical costs and lost wages (California Healthline, 7/7).
Majority Whip Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said, "Our current medical liability system encourages excessive litigation, drives up costs and is literally scaring doctors out of the medical profession" (Washington Post, 7/8). A spokesperson for Frist said that a vote on the bill is necessary because it is "important to put folks on the record." In a Statement of Administration Policy released yesterday, the White House said, "The bill is an important step toward ensuring that our liability system fairly compensates those who are truly harmed, does not drive good doctors out of medicine and increases access to quality, affordable health care" (Fulton, CongressDaily/AM, 7/8). However, Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) said that the bill is "as unfair to victims as the malpractice insurance rates are to doctors." Durbin said that he and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) intend to introduce an alternative that deals with "anti-competitive behavior by insurance companies" (Washington Post, 7/8). Durbin also said, "I do believe this would be a better exercise to take up in committee" (CongressDaily/AM, 7/8). Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) said, "Jamming this in the Senate is not the way to achieve some bipartisan consensus on a very legitimate issue" (New York Times, 7/8).
In related news, a study released yesterday by the HHS Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality found that states with caps on noneconomic awards in medical malpractice lawsuits have about 12% more doctors per capita than states without caps. The study found that in 1970, before any state implemented caps, there was no statistically significant difference among states in their per capita supply of doctors; however, in 2000, states that had enacted caps had 135 doctors per 100,000 county residents, compared with 120 doctors per 100,000 county residents in states that did not have caps. Researchers adjusted for factors that affect doctor supply, including per capita income and doctor residency training programs. HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson said, "This study confirms and quantifies the association between reasonable limits in medical lawsuits and the supply of physicians available to treat patients who need them. It is critical that we fix this broken litigation system now" (HHS release, 7/7). The study is available online.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.