- The Washington Times - Monday, February 23, 2004

Legislation to limit lawsuits against doctors who deliver babies is expected to fail a key vote in the Senate today, but Republicans will continue pushing what they view as both good policy and a winning issue this election year.

Republicans say the measure, which would limit the amount of awards in lawsuits against obstetricians and gynecologists, is sorely needed because the skyrocketing cost of malpractice insurance is forcing such doctors out of business.

Democrats oppose the bill, which is not expected to garner the 60 votes needed today to cut off debate and force a final vote, both sides say. But Republicans will continue introducing similar bills.

“This is a patient-access crisis, and until we address it, you’re going to see Republicans take this issue head on. You can’t help but pay attention when doctors are shutting their doors,” said Sarah Berk, spokeswoman for the Senate Republican Conference.

The issue provides valuable political fodder for Republicans as well, because lawyers are among the Democrats’ most generous donors. Republicans say that is why Democrats are opposing the bill.

“The trial lawyers of America will not let the Democrats support a bill to address this crisis,” Miss Berk said.

“All we’re looking for is 60 senators willing to stand up to … lawyers,” Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican, said yesterday, adding that Democrats should ask themselves “whether they are serving the best interest of their constituents” by opposing the bill.

Lawyers and law firms have given $29 million to Democrats and $13 million to Republicans so far in the 2004 election cycle, according to data from the Federal Election Commission compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics.

Democrats have received from 68 percent to 74 percent of lawyers’ donations in every year since 1994.

Reforming malpractice lawsuits is a top goal for President Bush this election year. One of the leading Democrats challenging him, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, was a successful personal-injury lawyer before he came to the Senate in 1998.

Under the bill before the Senate today, noneconomic damages such as pain and suffering would be capped at $250,000 in medical malpractice lawsuits involving obstetrical or gynecological goods or services. Punitive damages in such lawsuits also would be capped at $250,000, or twice the amount of economic damages, whichever is higher.

The bill has no cap on the amount a jury can award in demonstrated economic damages.

After Senate Democrats last year defeated a broader bill that would have capped such damages for all doctors, Republican leaders adopted a piecemeal approach and plan to introduce more bills in the coming weeks that apply to other specialties, such as emergency-room doctors.

But Democrats said today’s bill would not lower doctors’ malpractice insurance premiums and instead would prevent women who are injured by doctors from receiving fair recourse.

“The majority appears to be playing politics with the medical malpractice insurance debate,” said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat, complaining that the bill would “severely limit the compensation available to some victims of medical malpractice.”

Democrats blame the high cost of doctors’ medical malpractice insurance on other factors, including the insurance companies, which are big donors to Republicans, one Senate Democratic aide noted.

Democrats aren’t worried about being hurt politically by the issue, because they expect the public won’t be thrilled with Congress trying to cap the amount of compensation for medical errors.

“This should be seen for what it is — a political exercise,” another Senate Democratic aide said of the Republicans’ push for the bill. “They think they have a winning issue for their base. Time and the election in the fall will tell.”

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