WASHINGTON – The attorney for the 17-year-old girl from Mexico who died after receiving a botched heart-lung transplant is appealing to Congress not to pass legislation that would cap damages in medical malpractice lawsuits.
"They want to limit pain-and-suffering damages and that really would not be a good thing for the public in general," attorney Kurt Dixon said Thursday in a telephone interview with The Associated Press. "This case that I'm dealing with now makes that clear."
Dixon arrived in Washington on Thursday as the House Energy and Commerce Committee began hearings on the legislation. In a letter to leading Republicans on the panel, he unsuccessfully appealed for an opportunity to testify before the committee.
Republicans have pushed the malpractice legislation, saying it is needed to stem the tide of doctors forced to quit their practices or relocate because of rising insurance costs. Democrats have said the measure is a boon for insurers and is unfair to victims.
Dixon was to appear Thursday evening at a news conference with House Democrats.
"As you meet together this week to consider the issue of medical malpractice on the federal level, I urge you to save a seat for Jesica," Dixon wrote to the committee. "America deserves to understand how people like Jesica and her family would be affected by the legislation your committee is considering and what is being done to ensure no other family in the future has to suffer as the Santillans have."
Jesica Santillan's family paid smugglers to bring them to the United States four years ago in search of better medical care for the young girl, who had a deformed heart and weak lungs. She received a heart-lung transplant Feb. 7 at Duke University Medical Center but doctors gave her organs with the wrong blood type. A second transplant was performed two weeks later, but the teen died last week.
Dixon said the family has not yet decided whether to pursue legal action.
"We will investigate this fully before we decide anything," Dixon said. "They are in the throes of grief right now. I went to the funeral last night. It's a mother who lost a 17-year-old girl she loves dearly."
The legislation being considered in the House of Representatives would limit damages from pain and suffering to $250,000. Punitive damages would be limited to twice the amount of economic damages awarded or $250,000, whichever is greater.
Patients' ability to file lawsuits over old cases would also be limited under the legislation, which is sponsored by Rep. James Greenwood, R-Pa.
The measure passed the House last year in a 217-203 vote, but it stalled in the Senate.
"Excessive litigation is driving up health care costs, forcing doctors to leave their practices, causing hospitals to shut down and leaving America's patients in a state of 'code red,"' said Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La., chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee. "Without medical liability reform, insurance rates will continue to force doctors out of practice."
In recent months, scores of doctors across the country have participated in rallies and protests about rising insurance rates. Just this month, New Jersey physicians took part in a work slowdown withholding routine treatments in protest.
"An unrestrained medical liability system is driving our health care system into crisis," Dr. Donald Palmisano, president of the American Medical Association -- which represents physicians -- told the committee. "We must act now."