- The Washington Times - Friday, March 7, 2003

The House took a major step toward passage of medical liability reform legislation this week, as the Judiciary Committee voted Wednesday to approve H.R. 5, a bill which would cap "non-economic" medical malpractice awards at $250,000. The House Energy and Commerce Committee approved the bill yesterday. The bill, introduced by Rep. James Greenwood, Pennsylvania Republican, and strongly supported by the Bush administration, is expected to reach the House floor by the middle of next week.
Under the measure, punitive damages could be as much as $250,000 or two times the amount of economic damages, whichever amount is greater. As Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner pointed out, the measure would still permit victims of serious malpractice to collect multimillion-dollar awards. But it would make it difficult if not impossible to continue the current practice in many states, where juries have virtually unfettered discretion in the amounts they can award plaintiffs and their lawyers. While the $250,000 limit would not effect actual economic damages, such as medical costs or lost wages, it would limit damages for intangibles such as pain and suffering a major factor in sending insurance costs through the roof.
Before the Judiciary Committee approved the legislation, Republicans defeated a series of hostile amendments pushed by trial lawyers and Democrats. One was an amendment by Rep. William Delahunt of Massachusetts to increase the cap on non-economic damages from $250,000 to $1.6 million. Another, offered by Rep. Bobby Scott of Virginia, would have deleted a provision of the bill limiting a party's responsibility for paying damages to the amount of harm it was actually responsible for.
As House Democrats were manning the ramparts against reform, the Department of Health and Human Services released a disturbing new report documenting why H.R. 5 is necessary. The report clearly shows how problems in the U.S. health care system have been worsening in recent years due to a proliferation of lawsuits and massive payouts. From 1991-2001, the number of payments for malpractice claims against doctors increased by more than 20 percent. The median payment more than doubled going from $64,000 to $136,000, while the maximum payment soared from $5.3 million to $20.7 million.
All of this is driving doctors out of business and jeopardizing consumers' access to quality health care. For example, in Massachusetts, where insurance premiums for obstetrician-gynecologists are among the highest in the country, several doctors in the Springfield area have been forced to stop delivering babies. In Montgomery County, Pa., the only trauma center had to close down at the end of last year, because insurance carriers were unwilling to offer malpractice liability insurance to doctors staffing the facility. In Nevada (where this editorial page has repeatedly highlighted the dire need for tort reform), Dr. Frank Jordan, a Las Vegas vascular surgeon, explained why he needed to close his practice. "I did the math. If I were to stay in that business for three years, it would cost me $1.2 million for insurance. I obviously can't afford that," Dr. Jordan said. "I'd be bankrupt after the first year, and I'd just be working for the insurance company. What's the point?"
Reform of the medical liability system in this country is in need of urgent reform. By approving H.R. 5, the Judiciary Committee has taken a huge step in the right direction.

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