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Akron Univ. School of Law

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Friday, July 29, 2005

House Votes to Cap Medical Mal Practice Awards in the "HEALTH" Bill

The AP reports that the House has passed legislation (230-94, with 2 voting "Present") that would limit damages for medical malpractice for the third consecutive year.  The "Help Efficient, Accessible, Low-Cost, Timely Healthcare (HEALTH)" bill (a/k/a HR 5) would cap awards for pain and suffering at $250,000, with no limit on economic damages. It would also cap punitive damages at $250,000 in many circumstances, although punitive damages could total twice the amount of economic damages awarded.  In addition, it limits lawyers' fees on a sliding scale based on the size of the award, imposes a 3-year statute of limitations in most cases, and provides a higher threshold for awarding punitive damages.   Supporters of this bill say it will stabilize malpractice insurance premiums, improve access to quality care, reduce the cost of health care, and ensure a more timely, predictable and fair liability system. Republicans, doctors, hospitals, insurers, and pharmaceutical manufacturers backed this bill.  President Bush said that "the nation's medical liability system is badly broken, as frivolous lawsuits are threatening access to the quality health care and raising health care costs for all Americans...The medical liability crisis is driving up health care costs through higher insurance premiums, higher medical bills, and the practice of defensive medicine."  The Bush Administration and House Republicans blame frivolous lawsuits and multimillion dollar awards for increasingly high premiums. 

Democrats, attorneys, and some consumer advocacy groups oppose this bill since it would prevent victims of malpractice form obtaining fair compensation for injuries.  These groups say supporters of the bill are protecting influential interest groups at the expense of the average citizen.  They predict it will help the insurance business become even more profitable and will not bring doctors any economic relief while posing potential harm to patients in the long run.  Rep. Marion Berry, D- Arkansas, asked "Are you so in bed with the drug companies and insurance companies that you just can't pass up another opportunity to give them money?"  Rep. Phil Gingrey, R-Georgia responded  by citing 15 of Georgia's 20 largest insurance companies have stopped issuing medical malpractice insurance since the business was hardly profitable.  He says that "without this insurance coverage, emergency medicine specialists, neurosurgeons, Ob-Gyn physicians ]are] being chased out of their profession, leaving ordinary people without their specialty doctor."  Rep. Dave Weldon, R-Florida, said "the real issue here i the incredible cost of defensive medicine.  I practiced it every day.  I confess. I ordered extra tests to keep myself from being sued." 

Another controversial provision was the "Vioxx" provision which would protect drug companies and medical device makers from having to pay punitive damages as long as the product had FDA approval. Republican supporters argued the Democrats were exaggerating the protections offered to drug and device makers, noting that they could still be held fully liable if they had not disclosed all data to the FDA. 

Lindley Bain helped with this post.  [twm]

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