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Read Making a Killing

home / healthcare / in the media

The Orange County Register
Feb 07, 2003

by Dena Bunis, The Orange County Register

House bill would put caps on malpractice awards

California already limits amount for pain and suffering, but not punitive damages.
WASHINGTON: California's malpractice insurance law is the basis of a House bill introduced this week that would cap some jury awards and help, its sponsors say, check a national medical-liability crisis.

Rep. Christopher Cox, R-Newport Beach, who has been trying to get such legislation passed for a decade, joined Rep. James Greenwood, R-Pa., in unveiling the measure Thursday.

The bill would not limit awards for economic damages, which includes medical bills, lost wages and other associated costs, but it would limit awards for pain and suffering to $250,000 and punitive damages to $250,000 or twice the economic award, whichever is greater.

Their bill comes a week after President George W. Bush called on Congress in his State of the Union address to deal with the medical-liability issue.

The measure has 68 co-sponsors, including a handful of Democrats. GOP leaders say they expect the bill to move quickly through the House this spring.

However, it is expected to face stiff opposition in the Senate, where many Democrats insist that investment losses by insurance companies, not lawsuits, are to blame for the medical-liability problems.

Cox and his colleagues say they want to do something about a crisis that has been felt most sharply in Pennsylvania, Florida and Texas -- states that have seen strikes by physicians due to skyrocketing malpractrice premiums.

''I'm determined that this crisis will come to an end, that no more emergency rooms will close, that no more OB-GYNs will quit and that no more mothers will have to drive to another state to deliver their babies,'' Cox said at a news conference attended by mostly GOP House members and officials from the American Medical Associ ation.

California's medical-malpractice law is almost 30 years old and caps awards for pain and suffering at $250,000. There are no limits on economic or punitive damages.

The proposed federal measure's limit on punitive damages goes further than California's system and is likely to be the most controversial aspect of the bill.

Cox said the state law ''has clearly restrained liability costs in California and as a result made health care more affordable and more accessible to millions of Californians.''

But consumer groups say the real reason California's malpractice premiums have been in check is the insurance reforms passed by voters in Proposition 103 in 1988.

Prop. 103 rolled back rates and gave the state the power to regulate insurance-premium increases.

''The big lie of congressmen Cox and Greenwood is that restrictions on victims worked when it was restrictions on insurance companies,'' said Jamie Court, head of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights in Santa Monica.

While California's malpractice reforms date back to 1976, Court said, premiums did not begin to fall in California until Prop. 103 passed 12 years later.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., doesn't agree.

She says California's reforms have played a major role in keeping rates down, and is also working on her own bill based on the state's system.

But Feinstein said she opposes the Greenwood-Cox bill, in part because she doesn't want to cap punitive damages.
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Contact the author: (202) 628-6381 or dbunis@ocregister.com


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