- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 26, 2005

RICHMOND — The House today is expected to pass an omnibus medical-malpractice bill that lawmakers say would help keep down malpractice insurance and health care costs.

The legislation would require expert-witness certification, allow doctors to show empathy to patients without being held liable, and require the state Medical Review Board to evaluate physicians who have settled three or more malpractice cases.

The Senate on Tuesday unanimously approved an identical bill.

The bills do not include a cap on pain and suffering awards many doctors had requested. However, lawmakers said the legislation still has broad support and that it will help doctors stay in Virginia.

“This is a great start for us,” said Delegate Terry G. Kilgore, Gate City Republican, who authored the House bill.

Doctors, who during the session have been lobbying lawmakers daily for malpractice reform, said they need the reforms to keep their colleagues from leaving the state or quitting high-risk specialties, such as surgery, obstetrics and gynecology.

“We’ve seen insurance rates double and triple,” said Delegate Robert F. McDonnell, Virginia Beach Republican who is running for attorney general. “We’ve seen a lot of veteran physicians leave the practice because of some of the costs associated with those premiums.”

The average claim in Virginia is $330,000, which is among the 10 lowest in the nation.

“It is a balanced approach to identifying in the near term ways that we can make it a lot easier for our doctors to continue to practice medicine here in the xommonwealth of Virginia,” said Delegate Bill Janis, Goochland Republican. “The biggest beneficiary of this will be patients in Virginia.”

The House is expected today to take a final vote on a bill that would bar Virginians from suing fast-food makers if they become obese from consuming the makers’ products.

Mr. Janis’ bill specifically states that people can’t sue a manufacturer or seller of a “qualified food product” for an injury, potential injury or death resulting from consumption of the food product and weight gain, obesity or any health condition related to being overweight.

A qualified food product is defined by the federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act and would include fast food sold at McDonald’s and other chains.

Mr. Janis authored the bill as a pre-emptive move against lawsuits, such as the one filed against McDonald’s in New York.

The House on a voice vote endorsed the measure yesterday. A similar measure failed last year.

Several lawmakers questioned Mr. Janis about why the measure is necessary.

Mr. Janis noted that 20 other states are considering similar restrictions to prevent any lawsuits from being filed in their jurisdictions.

In 2003, a federal judge threw out two class-action lawsuits that blamed McDonald’s for making people fat. One of the lawsuits was revived last week.

The political and educational arm of Senate Republicans wants to know whether Virginians favor a constitutional amendment defining marriage as the union of a man and woman.

The Virginia Senate Republican Leadership Trust has set up a Web site that includes a survey that asks Virginians if they think the state constitution should be amended. The Web site is at www.vsrlt.org.

Last year, the Republican-controlled legislature overwhelmingly passed a ban on civil unions. This year, Delegate Mitchell Van Yahres, Charlottesville Democrat, proposed a bill that would repeal that ban. It is unlikely to pass.

Gun buyers, including criminals, can continue to avoid background checks by doing business with unlicensed dealers at Virginia gun shows.

The Senate voted 20-17 yesterday to kill Sen. Henry L. Marsh III’s bill requiring criminal-background checks on all purchasers at gun shows. State law requires federally licensed dealers to conduct the checks at gun shows, but it exempts unlicensed vendors, such as gun collectors and private sellers.

Mr. Marsh, Richmond Democrat, said Virginia is the only state along the coast from North Carolina to the Canadian border that has not closed “the gun-show loophole.”

He said licensed dealers at gun shows would charge a small fee to conduct the checks for their unlicensed competitors. It would be a minor inconvenience for the law-abiding public and a deterrent to criminals, he said. Mr. Marsh’s bill failed on the Senate floor last year.

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The House will vote on a bill requiring the state Board of Education to revise its guidelines on reciting the Pledge of Allegiance.

The changes would address whether to notify parents when students refuse to recite the Pledge or to stand while others do.

Delegate Mark L. Cole, Fredericksburg Republican, who sponsored the bill, said he thinks “it’s important that parents be aware of what their children are doing at school.”

Aimee Perron Seibert, a lobbyist for the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, said the legislation is unconstitutional. She notes that a federal court struck down a Pennsylvania law requiring schools to notify parents of children who refuse to recite the Pledge because of religious or personal beliefs.

But Mr. Cole said his bill only requires the state board and the Attorney General’s Office to develop guidelines. It does not mandate parental notification.

School bullies might want to reconsider picking a fight with a smaller youth or stuffing him in his locker if legislation endorsed yesterday by a House committee becomes law.

Delegate Rob B. Bell III’s bill would require public schools to report incidents of bullying to the victim’s parents, who could complain to police. It also would require school divisions to adopt bullying-prevention policies and discourage bullying in their “character-education” programs.

The House Education Committee endorsed the bill with little debate.

Mr. Bell, Albemarle Republican, said he became interested in the issue when he was a prosecutor. He said a national study showed that about 160,000 students skip school on any given day to avoid being bullied, and victims often do not report incidents to school authorities or parents.

A Senate committee yesterday sent legislation banning the death penalty for juveniles to the Virginia State Crime Commission for a year of study.

An identical bill still is pending in the House, but the action by the Senate Courts of Justice Committee seals the measure’s fate for this year.

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Patricia S. Ticer, and death-penalty opponents who had made the measure their top priority in this session said the issue will get more thorough study in the commission than it would receive during the rush of a 46-day legislative session.

Jack Payden-Travers, executive director of Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, said activists hoped the U.S. Supreme Court would declare the death penalty for juvenile offenders unconstitutional this week, providing a boost for the bills sponsored by Mrs. Ticer, Alexandria Democrat, and Delegate Vincent F. Callahan Jr., Fairfax County Republican.

However, it now appears a decision in the Roper v. Simmons case out of Missouri will not come before March, after the General Assembly adjourns.

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

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