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House weighs malpractice limits

Physicians complain of high insurance rates

By Janelle Carter

Associated Press

WASHINGTON-- Responding to physicians' complaints that insurance rates are driving them out of business, lawmakers are considering limiting malpractice awards to patients injured by their doctors.

House debate on the measure was scheduled for Thursday, and despite opposition from Democrats and some consumer groups, Republicans were expected to get enough votes for passage.

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The 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.

In taking up the proposal, lawmakers are entering into a debate that dozens of states have tried to grapple with in recent months as scores of doctors have quit in protest, scaled back their practices and taken their fight to the nation's statehouses.

Just last month, Nevada Gov. Kenny Guinn signed into law a bill that caps pain-and-suffering awards. The legislative action was prompted by the temporary closure of a trauma center in Las Vegas after all but one of its 58 orthopedic doctors resigned because they couldn't afford rising malpractice insurance premiums.

Mississippi lawmakers have been in a special session for weeks trying to craft a bill because doctors in many high-risk fields are pulling out of the state. And in Pennsylvania, hundreds of doctors have rallied demanding that lawmakers rein in malpractice insurance rates.

"We have seen signs of an acute crisis," said Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis. "For a number of years it has gotten much worse."

Said Rep. Jim Greenwood, R-Pa. and the measure's sponsor, "This is a life and death issue. I think it's important we move on it."

President Bush has weighed in, telling an audience in July, "Our badly broken medical liability system is responsible for higher costs for patients, for lower quality of care and for decreased access."

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Senate Democrats already have rejected a similar version of the bill.

Consumer groups accused House lawmakers of catering to business interests.

"Congress must not strip innocent consumers of their legal right to hold careless medical providers and HMOs, substandard nursing homes or other wrongdoers who cause injury or death, fully accountable for their actions," said Sally Greenberg, senior product safety counsel for Consumers Union. "Common sense and basic fairness demand that this bill be rejected."

Dr. Donald Palmisano, president-elect of the American Medical Association, said physicians agree that the system is out of control.

"What they're saying is we can't afford it. We will either quit medicine, limit our practice or we'll move to another state," Palmisano said. "You can't practice under these kinds of conditions."

The bill is H.R. 4600.

Bill text: thomas.loc.gov

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