Legislation limiting malpractice damages passes House

Noneconomic damages in certain medical malpractice lawsuits would be capped at $250,000 under a bill passed through the House with only Republican support on June 28.

The legislation, titled the “Protecting Access to Care Act,” would only apply to cases where the patient alleging malpractice was covered by Medicare, Medicaid or an insurance plan involving a federal tax credit or subsidy, like those on the Affordable Care Act exchanges. While economic losses, like medical costs and lost wages, wouldn’t be capped, damages for emotional suffering or pain would be limited.

The bill would also institute a statute of limitations for malpractice suits of one year after discovery of an injury or three years after the injury occurred. Payments would be also be made periodically, rather than in lump sums.

The legislation was passed on a thin margin of 218-210, with 19 Republicans joining all Democrats in opposing the bill.

“Healthcare costs are out of control,” said one of the bill’s sponsors, Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, “due in large part to unlimited lawsuits and other problems Obamacare failed to solve or else Obamacare made worse. H.R. 1215 is common sense litigation reform that will rein in overly aggressive health care lawsuits while preserving the ability of plaintiffs to recover unlimited economic damages.”

Democrats opposed the bill on the grounds it would deny full compensation to patients and shield negligent doctors from liability. Some Republicans voted against it because of how it would pre-empt state malpractice laws or court decisions which prohibit caps on noneconomic damages. More than 80 organizations, many of them consumer advocacy groups, signed a letter before the June 28 vote urging legislators to block the bill.

“Congress should focus on improving patient safety and reducing deaths and injuries, not insulating negligent providers from accountability, harming patients and saddling taxpayers with the cost, as H.R. 1215 would do,” they wrote.

The American Medical Association, however, supported the bill.

“By redirecting health care spending from defensive medicine, additional dollars can go to patient care, safety and quality improvements, and to health information technology systems that would help improve care and outcomes,” AMA President David Barbe, MD said in a statement.

The Congressional Budget Office had said in its March report on the legislation that it would lower the federal deficit by almost $50 billion by 2027, as well as lower consumers’ premiums, premiums for malpractice liability insurance and the use of services prescribed by providers.

The bill doesn’t go as far as some past healthcare tort reform proposals from Republicans. When he was a congressman, HHS Secretary Tom Price, MD, once proposed taking malpractice cases out of the normal court system and having them heard by doctor-led tribunals.