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Feb 11, 2003
by Josh Goldstein; Inquirer Staff Writer
Consensus was at a premium;
Rep. Greenwood held a hearing on increases in the cost of medical malpractice insurance.The contentious debate over how to curtail the steep increases in the premiums for medical-malpractice insurance returned to Pennsylvania yesterday at a congressional hearing on the issue held by U.S. Rep. Jim Greenwood (R., Pa.) at St. Mary Medical Center in Middletown Township, Bucks County.
Doctors, hospital administrators and insurance executives asserted that limits on damages for pain and suffering and other "noneconomic" damages in malpractice suits would fix the problem.
Consumer advocates, plaintiff lawyers, and patients who said they had suffered negligent care countered by saying that improved patient safety and better regulation of the insurers were the answer.
The hearing was held as malpractice legislation that Greenwood introduced in January limiting noneconomic damages works its way through the House of Representatives.
"Reasonable caps on such subjective damages, in my estimation, when teamed with a specific package of other reforms, will bring juries, verdicts and insurance rates back to earth," Greenwood said yesterday.
Last year, a similar bill also written by Greenwood passed the House but failed in the Senate. And now, even with Republicans holding a slim majority in the Senate and with President Bush's support, the bill's passage is not assured.
For example, Pennsylvania's U.S. senators, Republicans Arlen Specter and Rick Santorum, have expressed reservations about limits on damages.
Greenwood pointed to California's malpractice law - which limits noneconomic damages at $250,000 - as the model to follow in fixing the problem.
But his star witness, Gov. Rendell, cautioned that the malpractice crisis afflicting Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and dozens of other states does not lend itself to simplistic solutions.
"Caps are not the sole solution to the problem," Rendell testified. "There is no magic bullet here."
In the last year, Pennsylvania has enacted three major bills as well as several new judicial rules to address the state's malpractice problems. Rendell cited lower rates being offered by a Pennsylvania malpractice insurance start-up, and said those changes were already starting to have a positive impact on the problem.
And he promised more changes in malpractice laws when the task force he appointed to find solutions makes its recommendations on or before April 1.
Among the changes Rendell said would help fix the problem were improved patient safety measures, better discipline of bad doctors, increased reimbursements for doctors and hospitals from insurers as well as the Medicare and Medicaid programs, and stricter regulation of malpractice insurers.
Also, Rendell warned that any solution must not fix the problem of high costs faced by doctors on the backs of those injured by medical negligence, but must weigh the impact of malpractice on them.
Greenwood said: "I do not think caps are sufficient. I think they are necessary," to the applause and some cheers from the doctors and other health-care workers who packed the hearing room.
Others said such limits were simply a veiled attempt to prevent suits against negligent doctors from ever being brought.
"Noneconomic damage caps discourage private lawyers from taking legitimate malpractice cases," said Harvey Rosenfield, founder and president of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights in California.
Rosenfield added that the California model that should be followed to hold down malpractice premiums is Proposition 103, which focused on the insurers, not limits on damages for pain and suffering.
He said: "In 1988, California voters, facing skyrocketing insurance premiums and angry at the failure of tort reform to deliver promised savings... passed the nation's most stringent reform of the insurance industry's rates and practices."
Contact staff writer Josh Goldstein at 215-854-4733 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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