Federal malpractice legislation became a three-time loser last week, but if the Senate majority leader keeps his word, it won't be the last time the issue surfaces in Congress this year. For the third time in less than a year, a bill to limit noneconomic damages on malpractice lawsuits failed to get past a Democratic filibuster last week, falling 11 votes short of the 60 needed to bring the bill to the Senate floor for a vote.
Though the outcome was widely expected, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) has said that he would continue fighting to cap malpractice awards, an issue that has divided the two parties in Congress. While the White House and Republicans support limiting noneconomic damages, Democrats have targeted malpractice insurers themselves and proposed repealing their antitrust exemptions.
The provider community vowed to continue pushing for reform.
"Medical liability reform is the AMA's No. 1 legislative priority and we will be relentless in our pursuit of medical liability reform for all America's patients and physicians," American Medical Association trustee J. Edward Hill said in a news release. "We are confident that senators will soon realize that the crisis is too dire to ignore."
The bill defeated last week was sponsored by Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) and would have capped noneconomic damages at $250,000 in cases involving obstetricians, gynecologists and trauma physicians.
At a rally in Washington last week as the bill was being voted on, Sister Carol Keehan, president and chief executive officer of Providence Hospital in Washington, spoke of the urgency hospitals face on the issue.
"Nationwide, some hospitals have been forced to cut or restrict the services they offer. This means fewer emergency departments and less available trauma care for the gravely ill," she said. "It means mothers and babies going without important prenatal and obstetrical care."
A similar bill sponsored by Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) failed earlier this year. Last year, the House passed a more comprehensive bill that would have capped noneconomic damages for all types of physicians at $250,000, but Democrats filibustered the bill in the Senate.
For Frist, a surgeon as well as lawmaker, malpractice reform has become a personal crusade. Speaking to doctors at an AMA advocacy conference last month, he acknowledged that Gregg's bill faced dim prospects but added that he would not stop bringing malpractice legislation before Congress until a comprehensive bill passes.
"I have made (malpractice reform) my priority," Frist told the audience. "Our opponents may block this again. We're going to bring it back again and again until we win."