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Democrats Win FightóBlock Medical Malpractice Bill in Senate

Senate Democrats successfully blocked the White House supported legislation designed to limit damage awards in medical malpractice suits on Wednesday. Fearing that the bill would punish individuals already grievously injured by medical malpractice, Democrats rallied to prevent the bill from progressing.

Senators voted mainly along party lines, coming up 11 votes short of the 60 needed to prevent a Democrat filibuster. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) pulled the bill from the floor, but said the issue would be revisited, either in Congress or during the 2004 elections.

Republicans claimed the bill was necessary to attack a medical malpractice insurance crisis, while Democrats said the bill would protect groups like the American Medical Association, HMOs, drug companies, and manufacturers of medical devices at the expense of patients’ rights. The legislation would limit awards for non-economic damages (such as pain and suffering) to $250,000, and reduce the payment for attorneys who work on a contingency fee.

The bill, which has already been approved by the House and is supported by President Bush, seemed unlikely to make much headway in the Senate from the outset. Frist brought the bill to the floor without any initial committee hearings or debate, a tactic sharply criticized by Republicans when the Democrats employed it during the 18-month period that they held the majority. Additionally, the bill involved sharp divisions over special interests groups, each with strong ties to the different parties. The American Medical Association, American Insurers Association, and the American Hospital Association all donate millions to the Republican Party. Republican aides, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that the party was helping to shore up relations with the AMA, which were damaged during the prolonged debate over legislation of patients’ rights. Working to defeat the measure was the American Trial Lawyers Association, a backer of the Democratic Party.

Democrats did not dispute the need for medical malpractice legislation, but rejected Republican’s claims that a cap would curb runaway malpractice insurance rates for doctors. Part of the problem with the proposed cap, according to Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle, is that it is applied too broadly.

“Under that cap would also go HMOs, medical device manufacturers, hospitals, you name it, drug companies… This is more than just a doctor protection. This is a protection for anybody involved in health care delivery,” Daschle told reporters.

Although two Republican senators from South Carolina backed an alternative would include a voluntary reporting system for medical errors and tax credits to defray the rising costs of medical malpractice insurance for some doctors, the Democrats would have had to let the GOP measure pass the 60 vote hurdle before being able to consider the rival plan under Senate regulations.

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