Senate To Hold Cloture Vote on Malpractice Legislation
Senate Republicans on Wednesday plan to try to close debate on their latest medical malpractice bill (S 2207), which would cap damages in lawsuits against OB/GYNs and emergency department and trauma center personnel, but they "fac[e] almost certain defeat" because Democrats are expected to block the motion, CQ Today reports. The legislation, sponsored by Sens. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) and John Ensign (R-Nev.), would cap punitive damages in such lawsuits at $250,000 or double the amount of economic damages, whichever is higher. The bill would not cap economic damages(Schuler, CQ Today, 4/6). In February, Senate Republicans held a cloture vote on a similar bill (S 2061) -- that would have capped noneconomic damages at $250,000 in malpractice lawsuits against OB/GYNs -- but failed to obtain the required 60 votes. Senate Democrats last year defeated a broader bill (S 11) that would have capped noneconomic damages at $250,000 in malpractice lawsuits against physicians, HMOs, pharmaceutical companies and medical device companies (California Healthline, 3/31). Despite the dim prospects, Republicans are expected to "revive and even broaden" the latest legislation to apply to more care providers, according to CQ Today. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) intends to introduce separate malpractice legislation limiting awards against rural health providers and so-called "good Samaritans," CQ Today reports. According to CQ Today, "The strategy is designed to force the chamber's Democrats to repeatedly vote against" malpractice legislation (CQ Today, 4/6).
The California-based Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights on Monday sent a letter to the Senate Select Committee on Ethics, requesting an investigation of Frist's promotion of medical malpractice legislation and his "personal and financial ties" to HCA, the nation's largest for-profit hospital company, which also has a medical malpractice insurance subsidiary, the Washington Post reports (Dewar, Washington Post, 4/7). HCA was founded by Frist's father and brother, and Frist holds millions of dollars in company stock (Bivins, Tennessean, 4/7). When Frist first ran for the Senate in 1995, his HCA holdings were valued at $13 million, according to the Post (Washington Post, 4/7). Since then, he disclosed transferring between $10.1 million to $30.3 million in HCA stock owned by himself, his wife and his children into blind trusts (Tennessean, 4/7). One of HCA's subsidiaries, Health Care Indemnity, is the nation's sixth-largest medical malpractice insurance company, according to the Post (Washington Post, 4/7). The letter states, "Because Frist has refused to recognize his conflict, it is up to the Senate Select Committee on Ethics to require he step aside for pending votes on liability caps, and specifically prohibit advocacy by the senator for any further legislation which would directly benefit his family's hospital chain and insurance company and increase his personal fortune" (Holland, AP/Las Vegas Sun, 4/6). According to two letters released by Frist's office, the ethics committee said that Frist's family "does not own anything approaching a controlling interest" in the company and as a result, it found "no reason to bar Frist" from involvement in health care-related legislation, the Post reports. The panel also said that "appearances of conflict of interest" would have to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis (Washington Post, 4/7). Frist spokesperson Amy Call said the call for an ethics investigation is "pure politics and borders on harassment" (CQ Today, 4/6). She added, "Anybody who knows Bill Frist knows he is first and foremost an ethical person, and he is motivated by creating good policy and providing good patient care" (Washington Post, 4/7).
In a letter to Frist and Ensign, Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook said that a review of nine anecdotes from the American Medical Association about physicians "driven out of practice by skyrocketing malpractice premiums" indicates that some are not true, CongressDaily reports. According to AMA, Jefferson Health System in Pennsylvania closed its obstetrics ward in April 2002 because of high malpractice premiums, but Public Citizen said the obstetrics ward is "still running and is accepting new patients," according to the letter. AMA also reported in May 2003 that a malpractice insurer ended coverage for 10 neurosurgeons in Washington state, but Public Citizen said "the neurosurgeon group appears to be doing fine because it is taking new patients at several of its medical centers," according to the letter. Claybrook also warned the senators to "avoid recycling these stories during floor debate." The letter also says that the General Accounting Office last year tried to substantiate similar stories and turned up "many exaggerations and half-truths." The letter adds, "We also suggest that you verify any other anecdotes before using them in floor debate." AMA Board Chair Dr. William Plested said, "Anyone who reads, watches or listens to the news can find that the media nationwide is littered with factual accounts of how skyrocketing malpractice insurance rates and a broken medical liability system are forcing physicians to restrict certain services, retire early and relocate" (Rovner, CongressDaily, 4/7).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.