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Med-mal reform passes House; Senate action unlikely

WASHINGTON — A measure that caps damages for a broad array of medical and other health-related injury cases and repeals a portion of the federal health care law passed the U.S. House of Representatives on Thursday on a vote divided largely along party lines.

The measure, H.R. 5, also known as the PATH Act (for Protecting Access to Healthcare), passed on a 223 to 181 vote.

Though it is unlikely that the measure will be taken up by the Democrat-controlled Senate, the legislation spurred a vigorous debate during an election year where health care reform has taken a central focus.

The bill would cap non-economic damages in medical and other health-related negligence cases at $250,000, cut contingency fees paid to attorneys, limit punitive damages to two times the amount of economic damages awarded or $250,000, whichever is greater; and allow courts to require periodic payments of damage awards.

These measures would not only affect medical malpractice claims, but also a wide variety of other litigation, including nursing home cases, medical device and pharmaceutical cases, cases involving bad faith by health insurers and intentional torts committed by doctors including those involving sexual abuse, according to the trial lawyers’ group the American Association for Justice.

“Instead of focusing on patient safety, Congress voted today to strip away the legal rights of injured patients, reduce accountability and leave Americans at risk for more injuries from negligent care,” said AAJ president Gary M. Paul in a statement after the measure’s passage.

The bill would also repeal the portion of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act that created the Independent Payment Advisory Board, a 12-member board that was created by the law to cut Medicare costs but has been criticized for having overly broad powers and insufficient oversight.

The AAJ joined an unusual coalition of groups vocally opposed to the bill, including conservative groups like the Heritage Foundation and Tea Party Nation. The groups asserted that the measure exceeded Congress’ authority under the Commerce Clause — the same fundamental legal issues underlying the challenge to the federal health care law that is about to be argued before the U.S. Supreme Court.

“Despite broad opposition from patient safety groups, state lawmakers and conservative legal scholars, [the] House leadership embarked on this obscene exercise just to score cheap political points,” Paul’s statement said.

Proponents of the bill hailed the vote as a measure to fix a broken health care litigation system.

“Frivolous lawsuits drive physicians out of the practice of medicine. Limitless liability discourages others from high-risk medical specialties and substantially increases the cost of health care,” said House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith, R-Texas, in his statement on the House floor. “The solutions to this crisis are both well-known and time-tested, [and] the President’s recent health care legislation did nothing to address the problems in our medical liability system.”

But in her House floor statement, Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., blasted the measure.

“Republicans have recycled their old medical malpractice liability legislation that undermines states’ rights and hurts the rights of injured patients to obtain just compensation,” Pelosi said, adding that the repeal of the IPAB would put seniors’ personal and economic health in peril.

The Health Coalition on Liability and Access, an advocacy group representing physicians, hospitals, health care liability insurers, health care providers and others, praised the vote, but noted that it is the “12th time that medical liability reform legislation has been passed by the U.S. House of Representatives since 1995” with no corresponding action in the Senate.

“Estimates have pegged the savings from medical liability reform legislation to federal healthcare spending at $34 billion over 10 years, and the Congressional Budget Office has determined that the medical liability reform provisions of H.R. 5 would reduce the deficit by $45.5 billion over the same time period,” the group’s statement said. “This legislation will continue to provide full and unlimited economic damages to deserving patients, while putting an end to medical lawsuit abuse and maintaining access to vital medical services for all.”

Lawyers USA is a sister publication of The Daily Record.