Senate Dems Block Medical Malpractice Reform Bills

Senate Democrats on Monday blocked Republican medical malpractice legislation during the GOP's opening session of a "health week" of proposals designed to win support from conservative voters — if not passage.

The dispatch of a pair of bills to cap the amount of damages juries can award in medical malpractice cases has been expected since last week. The roll calls fell well short of the 60 votes Republicans needed to advance the bill.

President Bush said he was disappointed by the Senate's failure to act "on this national problem that deserves a national solution."

"Unwilling to take on their trial-lawyer supporters, the Democrats led this effort to block these much-needed reforms," Bush said in a written statement issued hours after the votes.

Republicans forced votes on the bills to demonstrate the GOP's commitment to fighting what Majority Leader Bill Frist called a "litigation lottery."

"It really boils down to the fact that health care dollars should be spent on patients and not on lawyers who are out abusing the system," said Frist, R-Tenn.

Democrats have dismissed the bills as a boon to the insurance industry and an election-year effort by majority Republicans struggling against low poll numbers to maintain control of Congress. They said other bills, such as federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, should be brought up during the GOP's "health week."

"I guess we're going to have bills that excite the political base," said Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa.

Sponsored by Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., the first bill, rejected 48-42, would have capped punitive and pain and suffering judgments against a physician or health care professional at $250,000. It also would have allowed patients to be awarded up to $250,000 against one health care institution. Judgments against more than one institution would be capped at $750,000.

The other bill, sponsored by Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., was rejected 49-44. It would have imposed similar caps on punitive and pain and suffering awards against doctors and institutions providing gynecological and obstetric care. The cap on awards from multiple defendants would be $500,000.