Malpractice Legislation Remains Stuck In the Senate

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The New York Times

WASHINGTON —  Senate Republicans failed on Wednesday in a third effort to curb medical malpractice lawsuits but said they would continue to force votes on an issue that they see as a cause of rising health care costs.

On a 49-to-48 vote, Republican leaders fell 11 votes short of the 60 needed to overcome the threat of a filibuster by Democrats and force the Senate to consider their bill to limit pain-and-suffering damages that juries can award in malpractice suits against obstetricians and emergency room doctors.

Senator Bill Frist of Tennessee, the majority leader, said his party would not give up on getting malpractice legislation sought by doctors and insurance companies through the Senate this year.

“We are going to keep bringing this issue back,” Dr. Frist said, “because the crisis is getting worse.”

Republicans say their measure could help reduce unnecessary lawsuits and higher malpractice premiums that make it harder for doctors to practice. They tried last year and again earlier this year to force votes on similar measures.

“The crisis faced by obstetricians, gynecologists and emergency and trauma care professionals illustrates the urgent need for national medical liability reforms,” the White House said in a statement.

Democrats accuse Republicans of playing up to their donors in the medical and insurance lobbies and say that limiting damages is unfair to injured patients and their families.

“I’ve never seen such special-interest legislation,” said Senator Patrick J. Leahy, Democrat of Vermont. “Instead of going about doing the people’s business, we seem to be going about the political action committees’ business, and that’s why, of course, nothing is getting done.”

The American Medical Association and the American Insurers Association, both longtime Republican allies, say frivolous lawsuits drive up doctors’ insurance premiums. In several states, obstetricians have cited higher insurance bills as a reason for their decision to stop delivering babies.

The Association of Trial Lawyers of America, allied to many Democrats, say insurers’ poor returns on investments are more responsible for premium increases. The group also argues that state-imposed caps on damages do not lead to lower premiums.

A group opposing the bill filed a complaint against Dr. Frist, a heart surgeon, for participating in the debate since his family founded the H.C.A. hospital chain and its subsidiary malpractice insurer, Health Care Indemnity.

The legislation “would directly benefit his family’s hospital chain and insurance company and increase his personal fortune,” the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights said in a letter to the Senate Ethics Committee.

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