House Puts Malpractice Reform on Table

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imageThe House Judiciary Committee earlier this week approved a bill to limit malpractice damages, HR 5, the Help Efficient, Accessible, Low-cost, Timely Healthcare (HEALTH) Act, by a vote of 18 to 15 and has submitted it to the full House of Representatives for consideration. Introduced by Representatives Phil Gingrey, MD (R-GA), David Scott (D-GA), and Lamar Smith (R-TX), the bipartisan bill would abolish financial incentives for filing expansive lawsuits against health care providers, while offering a fair and timely reparations process to those who do merit compensation for medical errors. Under its provisos, non-economic damages, or “pain and suffering” awards, would be limited to $250,000, and punitive damages would not be permitted unless an actual economic judgment is rendered. In the latter case, punitive damages awarded would be limited to no more than twice the economic damages assessed. The act would also maximize awards to patients by allowing courts to ensure that unjust portions of recovered funds are not misdirected to attorneys. Moreover, patients would be permitted to recover the full cost of economic damages, such as medical bills and lost income.  Reforms proposed within the Act are similar to those already working in California and Texas. In a letter of support sent to the House Judiciary Committee by the American Medical Association (AMA), AMA Chair Ardis D. Hoven, MD asserts that “while the total medical liability premiums in the rest of the U.S. rose by 945% between 1976 and 2009, the increase in California premiums was less than one-third of that amount, at 261%. Every dollar that goes toward medical liability costs is a dollar that does not go to patients who need care.” The American Hospital Association (AHA) also supports the Act, as it did when it was introduced in previous Congresses. In a letter to Gingrey, Rick Pollack, executive vice president, states that the increased costs that result from the current flawed medical liability system not only hinder access to affordable health care; they also threaten the stability of the hospital field, which employed 5.3 million individuals in 2009 and continues to be one of the largest sources of private-sector jobs. “An estimated $50 billion to $100 billion is spent annually on defensive medicine—services not provided for the primary purpose of benefitting the patient, but rather to mitigate the risk of liability. To help make health care more affordable and efficient, the current medical liability system must be reformed.”