WASHINGTON – The House passed a measure Thursday that would cap punitive damages awarded in medical malpractice suits.
Supporters say that the Bipartisan Health Act of 2003 would bring sanity to the liability system, which has forced doctors to refuse to treat patients because of high malpractice insurance costs.
"Our nation is facing a health care crisis driven by uncontrolled litigation," said House Judiciary Committee Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., prior to the 229-196 vote passing the bill. "Doctors are being forced to abandon patients and practices. Women are being particularly hard hit as are low-income and rural neighborhoods."
But opponents say it cheats people out of compensation after being terribly abused by negligent or incompetent doctors.
"If this bill were current law, no experienced trial lawyer would take the case of Jesica Santillan, the Mexican girl who died after receiving the wrong organs at Duke University Hospital," Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Fla., said. The 17-year-old died at Duke University Medical Center in North Carolina last month after receiving a heart-lung transplant from a donor with the wrong blood type.
"The case would be complex and expensive to put on, there would be no economic damages, and the maximum non-economic award would be $250,000," Hastings said.
The bill, introduced by Rep. James Greenwood, R-Pa., and co-sponsored by at least 120 House members, places a cap on non-economic damages, such as pain and suffering, at $250,000, or twice the economic damages, whichever is less. It allows victims of medical malpractice to continue to collect unlimited amounts for medical expenses and loss of earnings.
It also limits the number of years a plaintiff has to file a health care liability action and seeks to allocate damages more fairly.
Proponents say that not only are doctors affected by skyrocketing insurance premiums, but a growing number of patients are blocked from getting critical health care. In January, 39 surgeons walked off the job at four hospitals in West Virginia to protest the rising costs and to highlight a growing problem across the country. Hospitals reported paying more than $10,000 a day to insure their doctors.
"This legislation is needed to address key problems in my district," Rep. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., a member of the Main Street Partnership, a group of moderate Republicans rallying behind the bill, said Wednesday. He said the chief of obstetrics in Highland Park Hospital was recently forced out of his position due to the costs.
"(His) departure is only a part of a growing trend that threatens health care in Illinois and across the country," he said.
The Main Street Partnership points out that California has enforced similar malpractice caps since the mid-1970s, with positive results.
"Are some malpractice lawsuits necessary? Absolutely," said Rep. Judy Biggert, R-Ill. "But it is wrong when trial lawyers can exploit the system through frivolous or unlimited suits."
But some prominent Democrats are saying the legislation would effectively take away the rights of harmed patients to recover their losses.
"This is completely unacceptable," said House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who joined Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle in a press conference on the issue Wednesday.
"Congress should fight to expand patients' rights instead of curbing patients' rights," Pelosi said. "We all agree that the cost of malpractice insurance for doctors is too high. [But] the Republican plan doesn't measure up. It will only hurt patients without bringing promised relief to doctors."
The Democrats have not offered an alternative to the bipartisan plan and it is unclear how the bill will fare in the Senate. The GOP set rules in the House debate that limited amendments and refused substitutes.
The Bush administration has supported the bill all along, saying in a statement Thursday: "The administration is pleased that [the bill] includes many of the president's reforms needed to create a medical liability system that will compensate patients fairly, hold doctors accountable without driving them out of medicine, and reduce health care costs."
On Wednesday, the House voted to create a voluntary system for tracking medical errors, promising confidentiality to hospitals and doctors, with the goal of improving patient safety.
The 418-6 vote established a voluntary error reporting system operated out of the Health and Human Services Department in cooperation with public and private organizations.
The Institute of Medicine has said that medical errors contribute to more than one million injuries and 98,000 deaths annually.
The House also passed other health-related bills Wednesday, including one to provide training and tips for schools on how to raise money to purchase defibrillators, and another authorizing $100 million in grants for communities to develop mosquito-control programs.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.