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Read Making a Killing

home / healthcare / in the media

Associated Press
Apr 07, 2004

by JESSE J. HOLLAND, Associated Press Writer

Senate Again Tries Medical Malpractice Bill

WASHINGTON DC -- Senate Republicans are trying for a third time to persuade Democrats to curb medical malpractice lawsuits and help alleviate what proponents of limits call a health care crisis.

"The ultimate victims are the patients who see their access to care, to that obstetricians, to that emergency room, to that trauma center, threatened and in some cases, that access totally disappearing," Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., said Tuesday as the Senate prepared for another vote on medical malpractice legislation.

Republicans on Wednesday will try to overcome a Democratic blockade on the medical malpractice legislation. Senate Republicans and President Bush have argued that the measure -- which would set caps on damages -- could help reduce unnecessary lawsuits that make it harder for doctors to practice. They've said the lawsuits drive up obstetricians' and gynecologists' insurance costs.

"We need to pass this legislation," said Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo. "We need to pass some legislation to deal with this crisis."

But Democrats have been refusing to allow the almost evenly divided Senate to debate the legislation, saying that Republicans are just playing up to their donors in the medical and insurance lobbies.

"I've never seen such special interest legislation," said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. "Instead of going about doing the people's business, we seem to be doing about the political action committees' business, and that's why, of course, nothing is getting done."

The bill is supported by the American Medical Association and the American Insurers Association. Both are longtime GOP allies who argue that frivolous lawsuits drive up insurance premiums for doctors. In several states, obstetricians have said higher insurance bills are forcing them to stop delivering babies.

But trial lawyers -- longtime Democrat allies -- oppose the bill. The Association of Trial Lawyers of America is fighting caps on damages, alleging that insurers' poor returns on investments are largely responsible for the premiums' increases. The group also argues that state-imposed caps on damages do not lead to drops in premiums.

Opponents of the bill also filed a complaint against Frist, a heart surgeon, for participating in the debate since his family founded the HCA hospital chain and its subsidiary malpractice insurer, Health Care Indemnity.

"Because Senator Frist has refused to recognize his conflict, it is up to the Senate Select Committee on Ethics to require he step aside for pending votes on liability caps, and specifically prohibit advocacy by the senator for any further legislation which would directly benefit his family's hospital chain and insurance company and increase his personal fortune," the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights said.

"If Senator Frist is allowed to continue his involvement in the face of such a clear conflict, any vote on the legislation, and the reputation of the Senate itself, will be tarnished."
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The bill number is S. 2207.

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