- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 19, 2005

RICHMOND — A powerful Senate committee yesterday unanimously approved a sweeping medical-malpractice insurance reform bill that lawmakers hope would keep doctors from leaving Virginia because of rising premium rates.

“It’s great news,” said Sen. Stephen D. Newman after the Senate Courts of Justice Committee recommended his bill. “I had expected opposition today. I was surprised.”

The Lynchburg Republican’s bill, which has bipartisan support and the lukewarm endorsement of trial lawyers, will come up for a vote in the full Senate next week. If it passes, the bill will be sent to the House, where several similar tort-reform measures are pending.

Mr. Newman’s bill includes proposals he said are needed to help keep down malpractice insurance and health care costs. His bill would:

• Prohibit patients and their families from using a doctor’s expression of empathy as evidence in a medical-malpractice lawsuit.

• Require certification of expert witnesses who testify in a malpractice case.

• Allow doctors to use their notes to testify in a case.

• Require the state Medical Review Board to evaluate doctors who have settled three or more malpractice cases.

• Call for a one-year continuation of a medical-malpractice reform study that could recommend further changes.

Doctors from across the state have been participating in a “White Coats on Call” lobbying effort to urge the Republican-controlled General Assembly to take up medical-malpractice reform.

Doctors say they need the reforms to keep them from leaving the state or quitting high-risk specialties such as surgery, obstetrics and gynecology. The Medical Society of Virginia, a professional association of more than 8,700 Virginia physicians, has said it lost about 100 doctors in the past 12 months because of rising insurance rates.

“White Coat Day and the fervency of physicians and the fact that we’re starting to lose specialists is resonating with people,” Mr. Newman said. “It shows tremendous momentum.”

Other medical-malpractice reform measures offered by Republicans and Democrats will be rolled into Mr. Newman’s bill.

In addition, there are separate proposals to cap pain and suffering awards at $250,000 and limit attorney fees for medical-malpractice cases.

Virginia already caps medical-malpractice awards at $1.75 million.

In Maryland, the Democrat-controlled General Assembly recently enacted a medical-malpractice insurance reform bill that includes a tax on health maintenance organizations, overriding a veto by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican.

The law freezes the cap on noneconomic damages, such as pain and suffering, at $650,000 for three years. It also reduces from $1.6 million to $812,500 the maximum payout for errors leading to death.

The House yesterday gave preliminary approval of a bill that would allow children to sell cookies and brownies at polling places on Election Day. Last year, the House rejected a similar bill.

After a debate, the House voted 54-40 to move the bill, authored by Delegate Robert G. Marshall, Manassas Republican, to its final reading.

If the bill passes the House today, it will go to the Senate Privileges and Elections Committee and then to the Senate floor for a vote. The Senate unanimously passed a similar bill last year.

Current law prohibits such activities within 40 feet of a polling place.

Mr. Marshall’s bill specifically states that nonprofit groups that have no political or partisan purpose and have not endorsed or evaluated political candidates may hold bake sales at polling places on Election Day, if the local election board approves the sale.

The House killed a proposed amendment that would have allowed parent-teacher associations that publish the votes of lawmakers to hold the bake sales. Those who support the bake sales called the amendment “a poison pill,” since PTAs often are considered political entities.

Legislation requiring public libraries that receive state funds to install filtering software on their computers failed yesterday on a tie vote in a Senate committee.

Sen. Mark D. Obenshain, Harrisonburg Republican, introduced the bill to prevent Virginians from accessing online pornography at libraries supported by taxpayer dollars. An identical bill remains alive in a House committee.

Philip Abraham of the Virginia Library Association told the Senate General Laws Committee the filters would cost libraries about $75,000. However, Mr. Obenshain said libraries could recoup their costs because a 2000 federal law requires public libraries to put blocking technology on computers as a condition of receiving federal money.

Mr. Abraham said surfing the Internet for porn at libraries is not widespread, and that the filters could impede legitimate research on such topics as breast cancer.

“We really believe this bill is a solution in search of a problem,” he said.

Sen. Stephen H. Martin, Chesterfield Republican, disagreed. He said monitors placed on Chesterfield’s library computers detected several thousand “hits” on inappropriate sites within a few days. He said that suggests there is a statewide problem “unless there’s some evidence all the perverts live in Chesterfield.”

For the second consecutive year, legislation requiring background checks on all purchasers at gun shows in Virginia cleared a Senate committee by one vote.

The Courts of Justice Committee voted 8-7 yesterday to send Sen. Henry L. Marsh III’s bill to the full Senate, which voted 24-15 to kill the measure a year ago.

Virginia law requires federally licensed dealers to conduct background checks on buyers at gun shows, but it does not apply to unlicensed dealers, such as gun collectors and private sellers.

A vote on the Senate floor is likely early next week.

Three bills that would expand or extend use of cameras that catch drivers running traffic lights won easy final Senate passage.

The most sweeping of the measures would allow cities and counties statewide to use the so-called photo red monitoring system. It passed and advanced to the House on a 30-10 vote.

Bills authorizing photo red systems often have fared well in the Senate in recent years only to die in the House.

Sen. Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II, Fairfax County Republican, led the opposition yesterday by arguing that simply extending the time a traffic light is yellow will do more to reduce red-light violations than photo red systems.

“A simple engineering change at the intersections solves the problem without issuing citations, without any of the Big Brother arguments,” he said.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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