- The Washington Times - Monday, April 21, 2003

Legislation to limit medical liability passed the House last month but is facing a tough sell in the Senate, where supporters are fighting to get at least some Democrats on board.
In Arkansas on Thursday, a crowd gathered outside the Little Rock office of Arkansas Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln to urge her to support the legislation. The event was organized by the Coalition for Affordable and Reliable Healthcare, which is lobbying Senate Democrats on the issue.
Speaking to the crowd, which included many doctors, was Leanne Dyess. She said her husband suffered permanent brain damage from a car crash last year in Mississippi because they couldn't find a neurosurgeon to provide immediate care. Neurosurgeons had been forced out of practice on the Mississippi Gulf Coast by rising medical liability costs.
"Like most Americans, I had heard about some of these frivolous suits," Mrs. Dyess said. "But I never asked, 'At what cost?' Well, as I watched Tony's hospital call all over the state and other states looking for a specialist to take care of him I finally understood the cost. And believe me, it's a terrible cost to pay."
Medical liability reform is a priority of President Bush and top Republicans, such as Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee. But Senate Democrats almost uniformly are opposed to the idea. Republicans do not have the 60 votes needed to overcome blocking or delay tactics.
In many states, including Florida, Mississippi, New Jersey and Nevada, doctors face extremely high medical liability insurance premiums, which are forcing some to move to other states or to retire. Supporters of the reform legislation say frivolous lawsuits and high damage awards are to blame.
Capping damages, they say, will help reduce premiums and ensure that doctors can continue treating patients.
But Democrats say limiting medical liability would not reduce premiums and is unfair to patients injured by negligence.
"It would deprive seriously injured patients of fair compensation, and do nothing to guarantee that doctors could obtain malpractice insurance at a fair price," said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat.
The House in March passed a bill to cap at $250,000 the amount of noneconomic damages, such as pain and suffering, that could be awarded. It also would limit punitive damages to twice the economic damages awarded, or $250,000, whichever is greater.
In the Senate, Mr. Frist and Utah Republican Orrin G. Hatch have been working with California Democrat Dianne Feinstein to craft compromise legislation.
At one point, the group circulated a draft bill that would raise the cap on noneconomic damages to $500,000, with some exceptions. But the California Medical Association opposed it, insisting on the $250,000 limit, and the process stalled.
CMA spokesman Peter Warren said that if the cap were raised to $500,000, "most of the stabilization of premium costs would be lost."
In light of that opposition, Mrs. Feinstein "was not prepared to move forward and introduce a bill," said her spokesman, Howard Gantman.
Discussions are to resume this week.
Meanwhile, Sen. John Ensign, Nevada Republican, has introduced a Senate bill that is largely in line with the House-passed bill. A Senate Republican leadership aide said leaders would prefer the Ensign bill but realize it faces tough going. The aide said discussions with Mrs. Feinstein will continue, but if a compromise is not reached, leaders could opt to take the Ensign bill, the House-passed bill, or some other alternative to the floor.
"All of those options are still alive, as is the timing," the aide said, adding, "there are people who think this is an important issue and we ought to have a vote on it and let the chips fall where they may."

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