Provider groups, insurers and other backers of medical malpractice reforms are hoping they can capitalize on the need for a broad coalition to pass a healthcare system overhaul plan in Congress.
The Democratic leadership reform bills now before the House and Senate lack the strong malpractice changes provider groups favor. The Democrats are betting, however, that lawmakers will alter those bills in an attempt to gain the support of malpractice reform advocates.
"If there is going to be a healthcare bill passed this year...it is going to have to have much stronger malpractice reforms than the Mitchell plan," said Frederick Graefe, a lobbyist for the Healthcare Liability Alliance, a coalition of provider and insurance groups. He was referring to the legisla-tion offered by Senate Democratic Leader George Mitchell of Maine.
The plan introduced in the House by Majority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) is essentially the same plan passed by the House Judiciary Committee earlier this month. The bill contains a variety of reforms, including alternative dispute procedures and limits on attorneys' fees. However, it doesn't include several measures providers say are crucial to controlling malpractice insurance costs, such as a cap on noneconomic damages.
According to provider groups, the bill also would open the door for federal preemption of stricter state malpractice laws. That would mean states couldn't adopt rules more stringent than those of the federal government.
The Mitchell bill, as originally introduced, was the same as the Gephardt plan. Since then, Mr. Mitchell has made changes he said would ensure that state laws are not preempted.
"We are very disappointed that Sen. Mitchell would not only turn back the clock on excellent state experience but also block any meaningful tort reform at the federal level," said Wayne Sinclair, senior vice president for MMI, a malpractice insurer.
However, supporters of the plan say tougher malpractice awards will not lower costs and will strip those injured of their rights.
Republicans who favor tough malpractice reforms have been turning up the rhetoric over the issue recently. In a speech to the U.S. Chamber of Congress, Senate Minority Leader Robert Dole (R-Kan.) accused Democratic leaders of bowing to trial lawyers.
"I know (the trial lawyers) have put a lot of money into these Democratic campaigns and $3 million in the president's campaign," Mr. Dole charged. "So, I know that a little malpractice to them is not quite the issue it is to the American people."
Democrats say they aren't wedded to either the Gephardt or Mitchell plan. Mr. Mitchell is negotiating with a group of Senate moderates on a package of amendments that would contain tougher malpractice reforms, among them a $250,000 cap on noneconomic damage awards.