Doctors Make Case for Malpractice Overhaul

Doctors released data Monday that they said shows large jury awards to malpractice victims and the resulting insurance increases are jeopardizing Americans' access to health care.

The House is scheduled next week to debate legislation that would limit medical malpractice awards.

The American Medical Association added six states to its list of areas that are in a medical crisis because of the liability problem: Arkansas, Connecticut, Illinois, Kentucky, Missouri and North Carolina.

An earlier AMA survey had already cited problems in Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, New Jersey, Nevada, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Washington and West Virginia.

In those states, doctors reported reducing or discontinuing medical services because of high insurance premiums. In other cases, doctors said they are considering leaving a state because of liability concerns.

"How many more patients will have to lose access to medical care before lawmakers decide to act and pass proven reforms?" Dr. Yank Coble, president of the AMA, said Monday.

Congressional Republicans have pushed malpractice reform 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.

The legislation being considered in the House of Representatives would limit noneconomic damages to $250,000. Noneconomic damages refers to compensation for life-altering injuries like the loss of sight or limbs or the death of a child.

There would be no cap on economic damages -- out-of-pocket costs like lost wages, medical costs or funeral expenses.

Punitive damages -- punishment for near criminal behavior -- 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.

The Association of Trial Lawyers of America has complained that the cap on noneconomic damages is unfair to people like housewives, children or the poor, who would be unable to show any loss of wages. Those victims would be most affected by the caps, the group has said.

"Their proposed prescription to solve the insurance crisis is to penalize the most seriously injured victims," said Carlton Carl, the spokesman for the trial lawyers' group.

Lawmakers and activists in the last week have used the case of 17-year-old Jesica Santillan to highlight their case against liability caps. The young girl 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.

The trial lawyers' group will begin airing television ads in Pennsylvania this week featuring a number of victims opposing the bill.