July 29, 2014 SIGN IN | REGISTER

New Twists in Old Debate on Malpractice Caps

Doctors in states with no limits say the threat of large malpractice awards has sent some of their colleagues packing in search of friendlier legal turf. Marilyn Heine, a suburban Philadelphia physician, said she underscored that point last week when she visited the offices of her representatives, Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick (R) and Sens. Pat Toomey (R) and Bob Casey (D), as part of the AMA’s national advocacy conference. Heine related how a local neurosurgeon had left Pennsylvania and moved to Texas, which has imposed malpractice limits. Pennsylvania state courts are barred by the state constitution from imposing malpractice award limits.

Even though the legislation’s fate is unclear, Heine said the lobbying trip was worth it.

“It’s about relationship-building and staying on their radar screen” she said.

E. Coy Irvin, a family physician from South Carolina, said that while doctors often shy away from advocacy, he has urged his colleagues to come to Capitol Hill, if only to size up the lobbying presence of the opposition, whom he referred to as “the suits in the room.”

While malpractice legislation has stalled in the Senate in the past, Irvin expressed hope that centrist Democrats would support it because of political pressure as the 2012 election approaches.

Other proponents of the malpractice curbs say the legislation faces an uphill battle of even getting considered in a Senate controlled by Democrats, who have long been beneficiaries of campaign contributions from trial lawyers.

Last year, the AAJ’s political action committee made almost $3.7 million in political contributions, almost all of it to Democrats. The association also spent $3.9 million on lobbying, with $470,000 of that paid to the Patton Boggs law firm.

“It is not a pretty scenario,” said Lawrence Smarr, president of the Physicians Insurers Association of America, which supports the malpractice legislation.

But proponents of malpractice legislation such as the AMA and the chamber are also among the top spenders on lobbying and are active in political campaigns. The AMA’s PAC contributed $1.4 million to federal candidates and parties last year, with more than half going to Democrats.

Ronald V. Miller, a personal injury lawyer from Baltimore who has written about the malpractice issue on his blog, said that while doctors have done a better job of winning the public relations battle, their motive in limiting awards is not entirely altruistic.

“Ultimately what this all about is doctors wanting to increase their income,” he said.

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