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Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Senate Dems Block Medical Malpractice Caps

$250,000 for taking out the wrong kidney? I don't think so, and neither do the Democrats in the Senate. Republicans, on the other hand... -hl



U.S. Senate Democrats blocked a Republican-sponsored measure supported by President George W. Bush to limit what doctors would have to pay injured patients for pain and suffering in malpractice lawsuits.

Senate Republican leader Bill Frist, a cardiac surgeon before going into politics, fell 12 votes short of rounding up the 60 needed to proceed with consideration of the measure. Republicans control the Senate 55-45.

The vote marked the fourth time since 2003 that Senate Democrats had blocked Republican attempts to set caps on malpractice awards.

``Year after year after year we have tried to reform medical malpractice in this country, and the Senate has been the stumbling block,'' said Texas Republican Kay Bailey Hutchison.

The House of Representatives, also controlled by Republicans, has passed legislation to limit pain-and-suffering judgments to $250,000. The Senate measure, sponsored by Nevada Republican John Ensign, would cap the amount patients could collect at $250,000 per defendant and up to $750,000 overall. The amount would be over and above any payments for actual expenses.

Democrats, who said the limits would help insurers and hurt patients, predicted they would block action on a companion measure, sponsored by Pennsylvania Republican Rick Santorum. That legislation would set a $250,000 cap on damages women could collect from obstetricians for malpractice.

Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada called the attempt by Republicans to bring up the measures an election-year ``political stunt'' to curry favor with insurance companies.

``There is a health-care crisis, but it has nothing to do with tort laws,'' Reid said. ``The real problem is too much malpractice, not too much litigation.''


Spiraling Premiums

Republicans said spiraling malpractice-insurance premiums due to frivolous lawsuits were driving doctors in high-risk specialties such as obstetrics and neurosurgery out of medicine.

``In Tennessee, 81 of 96 counties don't have a neurosurgeon,'' Frist said of his home state. ``Half don't have an emergency physician'' or an obstetrician, he said. ``Nobody is going to move into those counties where premiums are sky high.''

Frist said ``greedy predatory lawyers'' had turned doctors' offices into ``minefields'' for physicians rather than ``places of healing.''

Malpractice payments have jumped from $2 billion in 1991 to $4.5 billion in 2004, according to U.S. government statistics cited in a Pennsylvania Medical Society report in 2005. The average payout per doctor increased from $150,000 in 1991 to $300,000 in 2004, the study said.

Democrats said attempts to cap damages in some 20 states haven't resulted in lower premiums. Caps on damages ``are not only unfair to the victims of malpractice, they do not result in the reduction of malpractice premiums,'' said Massachusetts Democrat Edward M. Kennedy.

``The Bush administration and congressional Republicans are again advocating a policy which will benefit neither doctors nor patients,'' he said.