- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 28, 2005

The House yesterday approved a bill that caps noneconomic, or “pain and suffering,” awards at $250,000 for plaintiffs in medical malpractice cases.

The bill, which was passed 230-194, faces a tougher battle in the Senate. Two similar versions of the bill passed the House in 2003 and 2004, but both died in the Senate.

Republican lawmakers, who introduced the bill, are hopeful the slim Republican majority in the Senate will pass the measure. The Bush administration has supported medical malpractice lawsuit reform.

Besides capping noneconomic damages, the bill limits punitive damages to no more than twice the amount a plaintiff would receive for economic damages, which include lost wages and medical bills.

The bill also limits the amount of contingency fees a plaintiff’s lawyer can receive from a medical malpractice award.

Democratic lawmakers on the House floor yesterday argued the bill would reduce legitimate medical negligence lawsuits and protect pharmaceutical companies from class-action lawsuits.

“They take medical malpractice, a sympathetic issue, and use it to cloak immunity that is given to the drug manufacturers,” said Rep. Barney Frank, Massachusetts Democrat, during yesterday afternoon’s debate.

Mr. Frank said patients who suffered harmful side effects from the prescription painkiller Vioxx would not be able to seek full retribution.

Merck & Co. Inc., a Whitehouse Station, N.J., pharmaceutical company, pulled the arthritis medication Sept. 30 after clinical reports showed the prescription drug increased heart problems in patients.

Merck now faces 4,100 lawsuits regarding Vioxx, which include 7,500 plaintiffs groups claiming personal injuries.

But Rep. Phil Gingrey, Georgia Republican and sponsor of the bill, said the measure would not stop patients from filing lawsuits against drug companies, doctors, hospitals or medical device manufacturers.

“This bill will not take away anybody’s legal rights,” he said.

Dr. Gingrey, a retired physician, said the bill would limit the number of “frivolous lawsuits” being brought to court, which would lower medical malpractice insurance rates for doctors.

“The only way we know how to get [medical malpractice] insurance premiums down is to cap the premiums,” said Rep. Anthony Weiner, New York Democrat, who called for an amendment capping liability insurance rates.

But Republican lawmakers quickly quashed that attempt, saying states that have set up programs to cap insurance rates end up taxing consumers to pay for the programs.

Maryland’s General Assembly earlier this year passed a 2 percent tax on health maintenance organization (HMO) rates, which would be used to provide financial relief for doctors with high liability insurance rates. That tax was largely passed down to HMO policyholders

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