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Federal Medical Tort Reform Faces Uphill Climb

Federal Medical Tort Reform Faces Uphill Climb

Around 15 years ago, U.S. state capitals were regularly besieged by large numbers of physicians demanding legislatures do something about skyrocketing medical malpractice insurance rates.

Before one such rally in Connecticut in 2003, Henry Jacobs, an obstetrician and head of the Hartford County Medical Association, told the Associated Press: "People have finally reached the breaking point. They're panicked."

This wave allowed physician groups to have considerable success in getting legislation passed in many states. However, in other areas of the country they have run into constitutional bans on such laws. Moreover, they have repeatedly failed to get the U.S. Congress to pass federal malpractice insurance reforms to cap noneconomic damages in lawsuits. Over the years, several bills have passed in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, only to fail to get the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster in the U.S. Senate.

Flash-forward to 2017. Malpractice insurance rates, although still high, have stabilized. And yet the desire to get Congress to pass a law capping noneconomic damages at $250,000 remains from many physician advocacy groups. After Donald Trump was elected president and the Republicans retained control of the U.S. House and Senate, there was renewed optimism from these advocacy groups that this session of Congress might be different. For one thing, Tom Price, the new secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, is an orthopedic surgeon who has made liability reform a top priority throughout his career. A bill he introduced in each session of the House since 2009, the Empowering Patients First Act, would set a $250,000 cap on noneconomic damages, impose a 3-year statute of limitations for filing malpractice lawsuits, and create administrative healthcare tribunals to review lawsuits before they go to court. This potential legislation died in committee.

Is there enough momentum to propel federal legislation over the goal line this session? Physicians Practice asked malpractice experts to weigh in.

Potential Legislation

Mike Stinson, vice president of government relations at the Physician Insurers Association of America (PIAA), said there are several advantages to having uniform malpractice laws across the states. One, it puts all doctors and patients on a level playing field, so you don’t have to worry about different injuries being treated differently just because they happen in a different state. "As we look at the expanded use of telemedicine, having uniformity across the country would help maintain a level playing field for patients and doctors who are in different states and may not be fully aware of what the liability laws are in each state," he said.

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