Malpractice Reform Fails Once Again

Physician's Money Digest, September15 2003, Volume 10, Issue 17

Democrats in the US Senate mounted a filibusterthat blocked a vote on a nationalmedical malpractice bill that would havecapped awards for patients' pain and suffering.In July, senators voted 49-48 to bring the legislationup for consideration, 11 votes short of the 60votes needed to end the filibuster under Senate rules.

The US House, as it has in several previous congressionalsessions, had approved a similar medicalmalpractice bill by a wide margin earlier this year.

President George W. Bush, who had stronglybacked the legislation, expressed disappointment withthe final vote, saying that access to quality health carewas being severely threatened by frivolous malpracticelawsuits. Earlier in 2003, the president said thathuge punitive awards are adding $28 billion a year tothe nation's medical costs.

Crisis States

Senate Republicans made access to health care anissue, citing geographic areas where doctors are leavingtheir medical practices and their states because ofhigh malpractice insurance premiums. The AMA hasidentified 19 states that are currently in a malpractice-inducedhealth care crisis.

Physicians in Nevada, Mississippi, West Virginia,and Pennsylvania, where juries are known for awardingmultimillion-dollar malpractice awards, are facingrocketing malpractice insurance premiums and oftenfind it difficult to obtain any coverage at all.

Donald J. Palmisano, MD, JD, president of theAMA, pledged that his group would continue to berelentless in its pursuit of liability reform. "The medicalpractice and the promise of medicine depend onit," he said. "At stake is the health—indeed, the verylives—of our patients."

The Senate bill would have placed no limits oneconomic damages in malpractice cases, but wouldhave capped noneconomic awards at $250,000. Thebill is modeled after California's successful 1975 malpracticereform law, which has held premiums formalpractice insurance in check compared to premiumincreases nationwide. Several other states have reformlaws on the books: 10 states have passed liabilityreform laws in the past year and another 17 stateshave considered them.

Playing Politics

Wall Street Journal

A July 2003 editorial in the noted that Democrats have long made the Senate "thegraveyard of any and all legal reform," but someRepublicans in the Senate believe that the vote to stallmalpractice reform will give them a key issue in theupcoming 2004 elections.

Journal

The editorial claimed that the vote wouldeducate Americans about the growing need for malpracticereform and which political party refuses toact on it. Sen. Rick Santorum (R, Pa) said that Republicanswent ahead with the vote, even though itwas likely to lose, so that "we can turn the heat up"on senators who aren't responding to malpracticeproblems in their own states.

The bill was supported by the AMA, which generallydonates cash to Republican causes, and was opposedby the American Trial Lawyers Association, seen as astaunch ally of the Democrats, with 90% of the organization'scampaign donations going to Democratic candidates.Trial lawyers have also kicked in 80% of thecash that Sen. John Edwards (D, NC), a fellow triallawyer, has collected for his run to become theDemocratic Party's presidential nominee in 2004.