Democrats Stall Medical Malpractice Bill

Senate Republicans say they will keep making Democrats vote on a bill curbing medical malpractice lawsuits, despite losing another attempt to get the legislation out of the Senate and to the White House.

"We'll come back to it," said Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., after losing a vote to force Democrats to consider a bill curbing medical malpractice damages (search) against obstetricians and gynecologists. "The problem is not going to go away."

President Bush and the Republicans have argued that medical malpractice legislation could help reduce unnecessary lawsuits that make it harder for doctors to practice. In a brief statement, Bush focused particularly on what he said is the impact on obstetricians and gynecologists (search).

"I am disappointed that a minority in the Senate has again decided to play politics and block our nation's ability to accomplish medical liability reform (search)," Bush said. "Today's vote is a blow to America's families, because pregnant women are losing access to their obstetricians and gynecologists due to frivolous and abusive lawsuits."

It takes 60 votes to force senators to consider a bill but Republicans were not able to reach that goal in the 48-45 vote Tuesday.

But Democrats said the bill is nothing but an election-year ploy.

"What this bill is all about is trying to make sure that we have a record roll call on the issue so those who are supporting this bill will go back to some members of the medical community and say that all of those senators who are voting against it don't want to help you with medical malpractice premiums," said Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill.

The bill is supported by the American Medical Association (search) and the American Insurers Association (search). Both are longtime GOP allies who argue that frivolous lawsuits drive up rapidly increasing insurance premiums for doctors. In several states, obstetricians have said higher insurance bills are forcing them to stop delivering babies.

But trial lawyers -- longtime Democrat allies -- oppose the bill. The Association of Trial Lawyers of America (search) is fighting caps on damages, alleging that insurers' poor returns on investments are largely responsible for the premiums increases. The group also argues that state-imposed caps on damages do not lead to reductions in insurance premiums.

By limiting the legislation to OB/GYNs, Republicans want to portray the battle as one between trial lawyers and women's access to services. "Is their devotion to personal injury lawyers greater than their devotion to women?" said Senate Judiciary Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah.

Democrats say the GOP is just trying to please its fund-raising base. Forcing a vote is nothing but an "attempt to tally points on some election year political scoreboard for powerful special interests at the public's expense," said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.

"It's wrong to take away women's rights in the courtroom just to benefit insurance companies," added Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota.

Some conservatives, however, said they would cheer the bill's failure because it would protect doctors who perform abortions. "Were it to pass, abortions would be even more pervasive because the bill immunizes doctors performing these procedures from accountability for their worst mistakes," said Ken Conner, former president of the conservative Family Research Council (search).

Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., said the Republicans plan to bring the bill before the Senate again with exemptions for emergency room doctors and with exemptions for doctors in areas with too few physicians and medical facilities.