Tuesday, February 24, 2004

The Senate endured another filibuster yesterday as Democrats blocked consideration of a bill to cap damages in medical malpractice lawsuits against doctors, drug makers and medical-device makers involved in obstetrical or gynecological care.

Republicans vowed to continue pushing similar bills as a way to combat skyrocketing malpractice insurance costs that are forcing doctors out of practice and denying patients critical care.

They wasted no time in accusing Democrats of pandering to trial lawyers, who are among their party’s most generous donors.

Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican, said Democrats, “are favoring the trial lawyers,” and Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, Utah Republican, said “it’s shameful” that Democrats “placed personal injury lawyers above pregnant women.”

Democrats opposed the bill because they said arbitrary caps on lawsuit damages would only prevent women injured by their doctors from being adequately compensated, and that insurance companies — not lawyers — are to blame for high insurance costs.

“Every piece of available evidence shows that capping damages has absolutely no impact on the cost of malpractice insurance,” said Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, South Dakota Democrat.

The Senate yesterday failed to garner the 60 votes needed to pass a motion limiting debate and forcing a final vote on the bill. The mostly party-line vote was 48-45. Just one Democrat, Sen. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia , crossed party lines to support the motion. Three Republicans, Sens. Michael D. Crapo of Idaho, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Richard C. Shelby of Alabama, opposed it.

Under yesterday’s bill, noneconomic damages such as pain and suffering would be capped at $250,000 in medical malpractice lawsuits involving obstetrical or gynecological care. Punitive damages would also be capped at $250,000 or twice the amount of economic damages, whichever is higher. The bill wouldn’t institute any limit on economic damages.

Senate Democrats blocked a broader version of the bill last year that would have instituted similar caps for doctors across the board.

This year, Republicans decided to take a piecemeal approach and introduce a series of narrower bills dealing with specific types of doctors. Next is likely a bill to help emergency room doctors.

“It won’t be the last time you hear us talk about it,” Mr. Cornyn said. “Part of this is letting the American people know who supports greater access to health care and who doesn’t.”

Mr. Daschle cited government reports that found the main factor driving up insurance premiums was insurance companies who were trying to recover their investment losses. The bill would simply create, “a two-tiered legal system that restricts [women’s] right in the courthouse,” he said.

Sen. Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat, said Democrats favor solutions other than caps, such as trying to reduce the number of medical errors that lead to malpractice lawsuits in the first place.

Absent from the vote were Democratic presidential candidates Sens. John Kerry of Massachusetts and John Edwards of North Carolina, who was a successful personal injury lawyer before coming to the Senate.

“People need to known where senators stand,” agreed the bill’s main sponsor, Sen. John Ensign, Nevada Republican. “They need to know where our presidential candidates stand on issues of this importance, and I believe that when they find out … this issue will make a difference in their vote come November.”

Medical liability reform is a top issue for President Bush. The administration yesterday issued a statement saying it “strongly supports” the Senate bill and that “the crisis faced by obstetricians and gynecologists illustrates the urgent need for comprehensive medical liability reform.”

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