Danville Dad Of Slain Kids Seeks To Lift Medical-Negligenc Damages Cap

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A Danville man whose two children were slain by a drugged driver in 2003 has filed a proposed ballot measure that would raise the cap on damages in medical-negligence lawsuits and force doctors to be more careful in handing out prescriptions.

Bob Pack, supported by the Consumer Watchdog advocacy group, says the measure would prevent other families from suffering as his has. "It's a simple and reasonable step forward that the legislature should have taken decades ago," Pack, 58, said in a news release.

But medical organizations say it's backed by greedy trial lawyers and would jack up the state's medical costs.

"More meritless lawsuits against health care providers do nothing to improve health care quality. They only enrich lawyers at everyone else's expense," California Medical Association President Dr. Paul Phinney said in a news release

Jimena Barreto was convicted in 2005 of two counts of second-degree murder in the deaths of Troy and Alana Pack, 10 and 7, and she is serving 30 years to life in prison. Already thrice-convicted of drunken driving, she had consumed a mix of alcohol, the painkiller Vicodin and muscle relaxants before driving that day.

In the weeks before the crash, Barreto had been given six Vicodin prescriptions by six different Kaiser Permanente doctors, who had failed to corroborate the injuries for which she claimed she needed the pills. The Pack family contends those doctors were never held accountable.

The Packs helped push the state to create a new prescription drug monitoring system that would prevent the kind of "doctor shopping" that let Barreto amass her pills. This new measure would make it mandatory for all California doctors to use that system and also would tighten requirements for detecting and reporting substance abuse by doctors.

But those aren't the controversial parts. The measure is contentious mainly because it would raise the cap on damages that can be awarded in medical-negligence lawsuits, which was set at $250,000 by the Medical Injury Compensation Reform Act of 1975.

The Packs were entitled to recover only the $250,000 limit for each of their children's lives; they note that $250,000 in 1975, when the cap was enacted, would be worth $58,000 today. The measure would adjust the cap for inflation, putting it at $1.1 million this year.

"For 37 years, injured patients in California have been denied access to justice and strong patient safety protections," Pack said. "This ballot measure begins to even the balance of power for innocent patients who are victimized by medical negligence and protects against dangerous and drug-abusing doctors."

Critics say it's a money-grab that will harm Californians even as the state tries to rein in health costs and insure more residents by implementing the national health care reforms. Kim Stone, president of the Civil Justice Association of California, issued a statement saying the measure "could not come at a worse time and I am confident that California voters would easily recognize that."

"California is in the middle of implementing the Affordable Care Act and working to accommodate millions of new patients," Stone said. "The worst thing we could do is create greater incentives to sue medical providers and drive up their liability costs when there is already a shortage of providers to care for these new patients."

After the state attorney general has prepared a legal title and summary for the measure, the secretary of state's office will clear Pack and Consumer Watchdog to start circulating petitions. At that time, they'll have 150 days in which to gather valid signatures from 504,760 registered voters — 5 percent of the total votes cast for governor in 2010 — in order to put the measure on the next statewide ballot.

Josh Richman covers politics. Contact him at 510-208-6428. Follow him at Twitter.com/josh_richman. Read the Political Blotter at IBAbuzz.com/politics.

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