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House Clears Bill Limiting Malpractice Awards

Health: Democrats are wary of measure being cash cow for insurers.

September 27, 2002|From Associated Press

WASHINGTON — The House, responding to doctors' complaints that rising insurance premiums are forcing them to quit their practices or relocate, passed a bill Thursday to cap pain-and-suffering damages that juries can award in malpractice suits.

The 217-203 vote came after a debate over whether limiting large jury verdicts would ease the insurance crunch felt by doctors and patients. Its passage is uncertain in the Democrat-controlled Senate, which already has rejected a similar measure.

"Our nation is galloping toward a health-care crisis of dimensions we have never faced before," said Rep. Nancy L. Johnson (R-Conn.). "There are whole states where a woman cannot find an obstetrician that will take a high-risk pregnancy."

"Very quietly, access to sophisticated high-risk care is declining in America," she added.

Democrats questioned whether the bill would simply be a cash cow for insurers after Republicans rejected Democratic attempts to require that savings be used to lower malpractice insurance premiums.

"They are going to allow the insurance industry to pocket this money," said Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.). "That's what it's all about. It's about the insurance companies, not about physicians."

But Republicans were buoyed by support from the White House, business groups, insurers and hundreds of physicians.

"This is the moment of truth," said Dr. Donald Palmisano, president-elect of the American Medical Assn. "Without reforms, patients, trauma centers, maternity wards and physicians are all at the mercy of an out-of-control liability system."

The House legislation would limit noneconomic damages, such as 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 be limited under the legislation, which would also curtail lawyers' fees.

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