Medical Malpractice Bill Passes House; Expected to Stall in Senate
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- May 21, 2004 -- Although the Greenwood medical liability bill, H.R. 4280, passed the House last week, some expect it to die in the Senate (Morning Call, May 13, 2004). Almost identical to prior unsuccessful legislation, H.R. 4280 would cap non-economic damages for medical malpractice at $250,000 and restrict punitive damages. It would also specifically disallow punitive damages against manufacturers of drugs that are approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and make it harder to take action against HMOs.
Why H.R. 4280 Is Bad Medicine
Non-economic damages compensate patients for very real injuries, including the loss of a limb or sight, the loss of fertility, or the loss of a child. H.R. 4280's cap on these damages would harm women, children, the elderly, the disabled and others who may not have substantial economic loss (i.e., lost salary). The proposed caps would also affect other victims of medical malpractice with serious injuries such as paraplegics and those with brain injuries.
A recent study by the Rand Corporation found that patients nationwide were only receiving 55% of recommended care (see Health Care Conditions Among the Insured). Preventable medical errors kill about 98,000 Americans a year, and about 5% of doctors account for over half of medical malpractice problems (Institute of Medicine, 2000; Public Citizen, Facts on Medical Malpractice Issues). However, H.R. 4280 would not improve the quality of medical care or reduce medical malpractice insurance costs. Instead, the bill would make it difficult to hold bad doctors, drug companies, and HMOs accountable for their actions.
The American Medical Association (AMA) has claimed that malpractice lawsuits are creating "crisis" conditions for health care in 19 states. One consumer's group, Public Citizen, analyzed the Rand report and found that it gave the highest rating for health care quality to Seattle, located in one of the AMA's so-called "crisis" states. The group also found that the quality of health care was higher in six other cities that the AMA claimed as "crisis" states. Two states, California and Indiana, were doing fine in terms of insurance premiums according to the AMA, yet the quality of health care was ranked the lowest by the Rand report.
Capping Jury Awards Does Not Cut Insurance Premium Costs
Other studies have shown that limiting awards for the injured does not cut the costs of medical malpractice insurance premiums. In California, for example, premiums have steadily risen since the 1975 enactment of the $250,000 non-economic damages cap under the Medical Injury Compensation Reform Act (MICRA). Reports concerning West Virginia and Arkansas point to medical errors and lack of doctor oversight for the health care system problems in these states, not an abundance of expensive lawsuits (See Medical Malpractice Insurance Problems Due to Economic Cycle.)
Instead of limiting the rights of the sick and injured, physicians and Congress should focus on improving health care. Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) summed up the health care problem and H.R. 2480 in this way: "...The bill before us pads the pockets of insurance companies, HMOs, and the manufacturers and distributors of defective medical products and pharmaceuticals. Sooner or later somebody's going to get it that this bill isn't going to go anywhere because it insults the common sense health care needs of the American public" (Michigan Live, May 16, 2004; Morning Call, May 13, 2004).
At Brayton Purcell, we have fought for the legal rights of patients and against harmful legislation such as H.R. 4280. We will continue to keep you informed about this bill and similar legislation.