May 8, 2006

Dems block medical liability bill

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Senate Democrats on Monday blocked
Republicans' latest attempts to limit damages for pain and
suffering in medical malpractice lawsuits.

Republicans offered two versions of the bill, one applying
to all malpractice cases and the other limited to obstetrics
and gynecology, an area with high malpractice insurance costs.

Both bills failed to garner the 60 votes necessary in the
100-member Senate to advance to a full debate. The vote was
48-42 on the broader bill and 49-44 on the obstetrics and
gynecology bill, largely along party lines.

Republicans have been trying to pass limits on malpractice
damages for years, contending that frivolous lawsuits are
driving up the cost of care. They argue that the high cost of
malpractice insurance is also driving some doctors in high-risk
specialties out of medicine.

"Medical malpractice liability premiums have skyrocketed
and they are poisoning the practice of medicine," said Senate
Majority Leader Bill Frist, a Tennessee Republican who is also
a physician.

Republicans modified the bills to allow damages of up to
$750,000 -- although no single doctor or hospital would have to
pay more than $250,000. People could still recover economic
damages such as lost wages and medical care.

Legislation with a $250,000 cap has passed the House of
Representatives repeatedly but has been blocked in the Senate.

Most Democrats and a few Republicans oppose the caps, at
least at the federal level. Many states already have imposed
lawsuit limits as well as insurance market reforms. Opponents
of caps say they will protect insurers profits, not necessarily
doctors or patients who have been harmed.

Democrats opposed to the legislation argued that rising
premiums were due more to insurance industry stock market
losses than lawsuits and were more a product of election-year
politics than a serious legislative effort.

"These two bills are put here as a result of the insurance
industry," said Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada
during the debate. "These measures before the Senate don't
represent a serious attempt to improve health care or the civil
justice system in our country."

The Senate is expected to take up another health related
bill on Tuesday, sponsored by Wyoming Republican Mike Enzi,
which would allow small businesses to pool together across
state lines to purchase insurance.

Those policies would be exempt from state regulations on
prices and benefits. The bill faces opposition from Democrats
who say it would distort the insurance market and drive up
prices for many people.