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Medmal Legislation Introduced

Three House Democrats on Wednesday introduced what they called “comprehensive, common-sense” legislation to reform medical malpractice lawsuits.

Reps. Brian Baird (Wash.), Jim Moran (Va.) and Dutch Ruppersberger (Md.) billed their proposal as a compromise — though one with provisions that outside lobbying groups on both sides of the contentious debate aren’t likely to endorse.

Baird, during a press event to outline the bill, said he and his colleagues consulted with various groups, including those that represent trial lawyers, doctors and hospitals. “Not that they all agreed” with the bill, he added.

One of the most prickly aspects has to do with caps on non-economic damages. Trial lawyer advocates vehemently oppose any such caps, and doctors and many insurance associations have said they endorse caps of $250,000. The Baird bill would cap those damages at more than $800,000 and allow that figure to fluctuate with inflation.

While Carlton Carl, spokesman for the Association of Trial Lawyers of America, said his group would likely support proposals on insurance companies that provide medical malpractice coverage to doctors, he added that “any Washington-knows-best, big-government imposition of a one-size-fits-all cap on the only compensation that a jury can provide for a malpractice injury is penalizing twice the patients who have suffered the most.”

Another provision in the proposed legislation would increase penalties for “meritless lawsuits.” Others would call for mediations or other alternative resolutions to keep cases out of the court system; establish best medical practice standards; and require the medical malpractice insurers to pass along to doctors savings from a cap. The bill would exclude pharmaceuticals and medical devices from liability reform.

On the other side of the issue, a spokesman for America’s Health Insurance Plans said he hasn’t seen the specific proposal. But AHIP’s Mohit Ghose, whose group has supported legislation with the $250,000 cap, said AHIP feels “that any move to advance the debate on medical liability reform is a move in the right direction. We have continued to emphasize the need for immediate action on medical liability reform.”

The American Medical Association is another group that has urged a $250,000 cap on non-economic damages. Donald Palmisano, the AMA’s immediate past president, said that an unchanging cap of $250,000 has succeeded in such states as California. Larger caps, he said, do not lower insurance premiums.

On the other hand, he added, “The American Medical Association congratulates these individuals in Congress for recognizing that the medical liability system is broken.”

Not only are Baird, Moran and Ruppersberger hearing from interest groups — they’re also hearing from their colleagues in Congress. “There are very few people on both sides of the aisle who like what we’re doing,” Ruppersberger said.

Baird added that the trio of Democrats — none of whom are on a committee of jurisdiction for medical malpractice reforms — are realistic about their bill’s chances of passage.

“But could we have a profound impact on the debate? Yes,” Baird said.

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