In his State of the Union message, President Bush called for controls on the burgeoning cost of medical malpractice insurance in some states. On Thursday legislation was introduced to address the problem. This bill, or something very close to it, should be passed as quickly as possible.
HR5 would place a $250,000 cap on “pain and suffering” awards and would limit punitive damages to $250,000 or twice the economic damages, whichever is greater. It would not place limits on actual economic damages -- medical costs, lost wages, lost earning power and the like.
For the last several years this legislation has passed the House but not come to a vote in the Senate. The bill stands a better chance now that Senate leadership has changed.
The medical malpractice insurance problem has been bubbling toward crisis in several states. In January surgeons at four different West Virginia hospitals refused to operate for a day. Doctors in New Jersey walked off the job (except for dire emergency cases) earlier this month, and physicians in Pennsylvania, Florida and Mississippi have staged protests or engaged in high-visibility lobbying.
A recent study in Georgia showed that one in five doctors is abandoning high-risk procedures (including delivering babies) and hundreds more are leaving the state or retiring.
The American Medical Association sees a crisis situation (serious abandonment of certain procedures, closure of trauma centers, widespread early retirement, etc.) in 12 states and a serious problem in 31 states.
Regulating how courts operate and what kind of damages they can exact is one of the few areas where national legislation is justifiable in a federalist system. Rep. Chris Cox, R-Calif. and the bill's chief sponsor, says “I don’t think the problem is frivolous cases. Hardly any of the cases are frivolous. The problem is the rare but real instances of runaway juries, which makes the process a lottery and drives up awards, settlements and insurance premiums for everybody.”
HR5 should come to a floor vote in the House before the end of March. We hope Arizona's delegation supports it.