Med-Mal Reform In Senate Doubtful

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Insurance Chronicle

Legislation to reform medical malpractice liability litigation, including a provision capping non-economic damages in malpractice lawsuits that has been advocated by President Bush, continues to be a major issue in the House, as two panels held hearings on the issue and legislation introduced by Rep. James Greenwood, R-Penn.

The House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health held a hearing on the need for medical liability reform on Thursday. A committee staffer said at the annual policy conference of the American Association of Health Plans that a markup of Greenwood’s legislation was planned for Tuesday, March 4th. The Judiciary committee also held a legislative hearing on the measure on Friday, and a report by Congress Daily last week said that House Republicans were hoping

to begin full debate on the bill sometime next week.

The hope of those Republicans, according to Congress Daily, is that that will be enough time for the furor surrounding the botched heart and lung transplant that cost the life of a 17-year-old Mexican girl to have passed. Even with the transplant in the news, the general consensus is that the House will eventually pass the measure, but that its true test will be in the other chamber, where the level of support needed for passage is lacking.

“It was widely expected and predicted that the House would pass legislation reining in medical malpractice awards,” said Ira Loss, a healthcare analyst at Washington Analysis. “The obstacle remains the 60 votes necessary to get it through the Senate, and, at the moment, they don’t have 50 votes in the Senate, let alone 60.”

Despite the bleak outlook for the bill’s fate in the Senate, House Republicans have defended it as a necessary to make healthcare more affordable and available. Subcommittee chairman Michael Bilirakis, R-Fla., said the bill would bring down skyrocketing malpractice insurance premiums that have driven many doctors to limit their practice or leave medicine entirely. The full committee chairman, Rep. W. J Tauzin, R-La., said the measure would reduce the frivolous lawsuits against physicians that cause them to, “look upon their patients with fear.”

Opponents of Greenwood’s measure, which include consumer advocates and trial lawyers groups, have argued that capping non-economic damages will only further harm victims of malpractice and prevent them from being fully compensated while removing responsibility from insurance companies and bad doctors. Harvey Rosenfield, president of the California-based Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, asked the panel, with regards to Heather Lewinski, a fellow

witness before the subcommittee and a victim of a botched surgery during childhood that left her face disfigured.

Rosenfield told the panel that a cap on liability awards, which has existed in California since 1975, would do more to improve insurers’ bottom line than lower malpractice premiums and improve access to healthcare.

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