House GOP Seeks to Avoid Health Care ‘Crisis’ With Cap on Malpractice Penalties

Posted March 12, 2003 at 2:19pm

Republican leaders packed a hearing room with doctors in white coats Wednesday to demonstrate what they termed a “crisis” in the country’s medical system.

Gearing up for rigorous debate over a bill capping the amount of money victims of medical malpractice could win in court for “pain and suffering,” Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) said the legislation must be passed if doctors are to stay in business.

“We simply cannot allow runaway litigation to continue its oppressive grip on American health care that is suffocating doctors and hospitals,” he added.

To bolster their argument, Republicans referenced doctors who have said the high cost of malpractice insurance is driving many physicians out of business. Therefore, the GOP wants to set a “pain and suffering” cap at $250,000.

Supporters of the bill, sponsored by Rep. James Greenwood (R-Pa.), said trauma centers are being closed and patients are being diverted to far-flung hospitals because there are no attending physicians or certain specialists in many communities.

Additionally, the American Medical Association lists 18 states as being in a “medical liability crisis.”

However, the general public is not aware of the problem, Republicans said.

“It’s like a world without firefighters — you don’t notice until your house is on fire,” House Republican Conference Chairwoman Deborah Pryce (Ohio) said.

She denounced the practice of “defensive medicine” that many doctors are forced to invoke to protect themselves from lawsuits.

The bill heads to the floor Thursday and is sure to meet resistance, as many Democrats are concerned about the caps.

Despite Greenwood’s assertion that the cap is only on noneconomic damages and that his bill would allow states to raise the cap, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) blasted the proposal Wednesday.

“This is completely unacceptable,” she said. “Congress should fight to expand patients’ rights instead of curbing patients’ rights.

“Unfortunately, the Republican leadership has proposed legislation that would knowingly, consciously and purposefully make life worse for many people who have been injured by medical malpractice. Not better — worse.”

Tuesday, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) questioned the bill, saying it would do nothing to force insurance companies to lower premiums.

Greenwood said numerous hearings revealed, and the National Association of Insurance Commissioners — the trade group for state officials who regulate the industry — agreed, that insurance companies are not engaging in price-fixing or gouging; rather, the high-cost of litigation has pushed premiums through the roof.

The average medical malpractice settlement is $4 million, said House Energy and Commerce Chairman Billy Tauzin (R-La.).