Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Dems block medical liability bill

Dems block medical liability bill

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Senate Democrats on Monday blocked the latest Republican 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.

President George W. Bush and his Republican allies have been trying to pass limits on malpractice damages for years, contending that frivolous lawsuits are driving up the cost of care.

Supporters of the limits 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 bill's failure to advance marked another legislative setback for Bush, who accused Democrats of blocking the legislation to please "their trial lawyer supporters."

"I am disappointed that the Senate has yet again failed to pass real medical liability reform legislation," Bush said in a statement. "Junk lawsuits are driving too many good doctors out of medicine."

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.