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Committees to scrutinize tort reform

- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 5, 2005

Mayor Anthony A. Williams' plan to reform medical malpractice insurance must survive the scrutiny of several committees before it receives a full vote, council members said yesterday.

The mayor on Wednesday resubmitted a proposal to reduce doctors' medical malpractice insurance costs by capping jury-awarded settlements and instituting other reforms.

Administration officials don't know which panels will hear the Health Care Reform Act of 2005, but it likely will be assigned to the council Committees on Health, the Committee on the Judiciary and the Committee on Consumer and Regulatory Affairs.

Chairman Linda W. Cropp, at-large Democrat, will make the determination, but her spokesman, Mark F. Johnson, said yesterday Mrs. Cropp was undecided.

"She is still looking at it because she wants to consider the matter carefully," he said.

Council member Phil Mendelson, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said increased insurance rates aggravate the health care problem, but he questions who is responsible.

"I think there is definitely a problem," said Mr. Mendelson, at-large Democrat. "But it is too simple to say that it is the fault of lawyers. ... If there was never a mistake in the operating room, then insurance rates would be very low."

Council member Jim Graham, Ward 1 Democrat and chairman of the Committee on Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, and council member David A. Catania, at-large independent and chairman of the Committee on Health, could not be reached for comment. Mr. Graham and Mr. Catania are lawyers.

Mr. Williams, a Democrat, says the insurance costs are forcing doctors to leave the city. Similar legislation he submitted in past years has been unsuccessful.

Mr. Williams said the legislation does not cap economic damages, but limits most pain-and-suffering payouts to $250,000 against physicians and to $500,000 against hospitals. The proposal, he said, also eliminates a patient's ability to sue a doctor who provided free health care.

"If the council goes along with this plan, we will soon be able to make the city a better place for doctors to work and practice," said Mr. Williams, who has law degree. "This bill is all about ensuring that our residents and visitors always get top-notch care and that our medical community can practice without undue burdens."

K. Edward Shanbacker, executive vice president of the Medical Society of the District of Columbia, said the legislation is needed to retain doctors in the city. He said 61 physicians in the medical society have stopped providing obstetric care and 80 physicians still practice.

"At some point, we are going to have severe access issues and we think that day is coming closer and closer," Mr. Shanbacker said.

A group of about 500 area trial lawyers opposes the plan.

"Placing a cap on damages does not promote good health care," said Wayne R. Cohen, president of the Trial Lawyers Association of Metropolitan Washington, D.C., and a law professor at George Washington University. "Instead, it simply immunizes those doctors who commit the most egregious malpractice."