- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 5, 2003

Top Senate Republicans yesterday said they intend to limit medical liability a priority of President Bush's though they acknowledged that passing such legislation in the Senate would be difficult.
"It's a tough fight in the Senate," said Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, chairman of the Senate Republican Conference. He predicted the House would pass the legislation first, and said he hoped the Senate would act in the next six months or so.
He and other Republicans said the situation is reaching "crisis" levels with medical liability lawsuits threatening access to health care by increasing the cost of medicine and discouraging doctors from providing critical services like child delivery and trauma.
"Out-of-control medical litigation and frivolous lawsuits are causing medical liability insurance premiums to skyrocket and forcing some insurance companies to stop providing this insurance," said Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, Utah Republican and Judiciary Committee chairman.
"Doctors who are unable to obtain affordable insurance are leaving some states and in some cases are retiring from practice altogether," he said.
Among the worst states are New Jersey, Florida, Pennsylvania and Texas, Republicans said.
"It should not be easier to sue a doctor than to get an appointment with a doctor," said Sen. Judd Gregg, New Hampshire Republican and chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.
He noted that the only obstetrician/gynecologist in the northern part of his state saw her liability premium increase from $38,000 to $139,000 in one year.
The president has been pushing for action on the issue, and his 2004 budget proposal said the administration will work with Congress over the next year to get something done.
Although Mr. Santorum said some Democrats, whom he would not name, have privately indicated support for a liability-reform bill, most are not too keen on the issue.
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, complained about the Republican push for medical liability reform.
"The president's response to the cost problem is to deny the most seriously injured patients the right to fair compensation, even though malpractice premiums represent less than 1 percent of overall health care costs," he said in a statement earlier this week. "The administration wants to give more subsidies to insurance companies while doing little or nothing for patients."
Mr. Hatch said the "base" starting point for crafting legislation in the Senate would likely be a House bill sponsored by Rep. James C. Greenwood, Pennsylvania Republican.
The House bill would cap at $250,000 the amount of noneconomic damages such as pain and suffering that a patient can receive, and would limit punitive damages to two times the economic damages awarded, or $250,000, whichever is greater. The measure also would limit the number of years a plaintiff has to file a health care liability action and would ensure that damages are allocated in proportion to a party's degree of fault.
Mr. Hatch and Mr. Gregg both plan hearings on medical liability before their respective committees.
Republicans tried unsuccessfully to attach a medical liability reform proposal to the generic drug bill the Senate considered last summer, but the proposal was tabled 57-42.
Mr. Santorum said that the answer is "not as simplistic as just caps" on damages, and that the Senate will "have to be a little more creative" than the House in order to get a bill passed.
The president's 2004 budget sent to Capitol Hill on Monday took a first step on the medical liability issue by proposing to protect federally funded health centers "from using resources … for excessive noneconomic awards."

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