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House Seeks to Cap Malpractice Awards

Reform supplements the GOP’s American Health Care Act

Last week, a jury awarded a Pennsylvania man $620,000 for pain and suffering in a medical malpractice lawsuit he filed against a surgeon who mistakenly removed his healthy testicle, leaving the painful, atrophied one intact. However, if a bill before the House of Representatives passes, the maximum he would be able to receive for such “noneconomic” damages would be $250,000, according to Kaiser Health News.

Noneconomic damages cover losses on which it is hard to put a dollar amount, such as suffering, loss of a limb, pain, and loss of companionship. In addition, medical malpractice awards may include monetary damages to cover medical costs and loss of future wages. Sometimes punitive damages may be awarded as well as punishment for reckless or other harmful behavior.

The bill is part of a package of proposed reforms that supplement the American Health Care Act, the House measure to replace the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act that was narrowly approved in May. The Trump administration has pledged to support the tort-reform legislation.

Passage is far from certain, however. Groups across the political spectrum oppose the measure, according to the article. Patient advocates say it would be unfair to seriously injured people whose lives are changed forever because of medical negligence. Many conservatives don’t embrace it either because it would impose federal standards on tort law, an area where states have traditionally determined the rules.

The Congressional Budget Office estimated that the bill would lower health care costs by reducing medical liability insurance premiums and the use of health care services by providers worried about being sued. This would lead to lower spending on federal health care programs and lower medical insurance liability premiums. The effect would be to reduce deficits by nearly $50 billion over 10 years.

Supporters say caps on medical malpractice awards discourage frivolous lawsuits and reduce the cost of health care because providers no longer need to practice defensive medicine. Research has shown, however, that costs from medical liability account for only 2.0% to 2.5% of total health care spending.

Under the House bill, states that have caps on noneconomic damage awards could keep those in place. In states without such caps, even if the state constitution prohibits them or state courts have struck them down, the federal $250,000 cap would apply.

Other elements of the House bill also trouble consumer advocates. For example, it would establish a three-year statute of limitations following an injury for consumers to bring a lawsuit or a one-year limit from the date that the consumer discovers or should have discovered an injury.

The bill would also set limits on the amounts that lawyers can recover in contingency fees from consumer judgments.

Source: Kaiser Health News; June 27, 2017.

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