Ill. House Committee Passes Bill to Cap Medical Malpractice Damages

May 30, 2005

As state lawmakers prepared to approve a deal on medical malpractice, Illinois doctors and hospitals celebrated a big victory Thursday but also braced for the sour medicine they will likely have to swallow to get their insurance costs to fall.

Democratic leaders brokered the deal last week after a two-year political standoff involving lawyers, the medical community and the companies that insure it.

A House committee approved the deal Thursday, and the full House could vote on it this week.

Doctors, hospitals and Republicans gave the agreement a qualified thumbs-up for good reason: Even though it includes some elements they oppose, it would cap the non-economic damages that victims can win in malpractice lawsuits — awards, such as for pain and suffering, that doctors blame for their high insurance costs.

“I don’t want expectations to be extremely high that we’ll suddenly see a drop in rates, but we do know that in other states it has had that effect eventually,” said Dr. Craig Backs, president of the Illinois State Medical Society.

What doctors aren’t thrilled with is the stricter state oversight it would include, which they fear would discourage insurers from working in Illinois and further reduce competition that can keep insurance rates from rising. Overall, though, supporters say the measure will help doctors and patients in the long run.

“There were some things we would have done differently,” said Senate Minority Leader Frank Watson, R-Greenville. “We got what we got.”

The resulting legislation centers on the caps of non-economic damage awards, those for reasons other than medical expenses and lost wages. About 20 other states have similar caps ranging from $250,000 to $1 million.

The Illinois proposal would cap noneconomic damages at $500,000 for doctors and $1 million for hospitals — twice as high as the limits doctors wanted.

Advocates say the caps will still lower insurance rates by reducing costly lawsuits and decreasing the chances of juries handing down astronomical verdicts.

Democrats, trial lawyers and victims’ advocates, however, argue that there’s no evidence that such caps lower insurance costs. Instead, they say, the caps punish victims who have legitimate claims and diminish punishment for bad doctors. Victims’ groups and many black lawmakers say legislative leaders shouldn’t have given in on caps.

“This is hardly a compromise bill,” said Amber Hard of the Center for Justice and Democracy. “The only thing it compromises is patient safety and consumer rights.”

Even if the deal wins approval, it could be tied up in the courts for years. Both sides expect lawsuit caps would be challenged _ similar caps have twice been thrown out by the state Supreme Court.

Supporters say they took extra steps this time to protect against legal challenges. They included language stressing that caps promote the best interests of the public and tied the caps to insurance and doctor discipline changes so all three are void if courts determine the caps are unconstitutional.

Under the proposal, insurers would have to open their ratemaking procedures to state regulators, who would have more power to reject high rate increases. Republicans and doctors worry that could further discourage competition in an already struggling market.

Doctors’ disciplinary backgrounds also would be posted on the Internet for patients to review, and more state investigators would be hired to root out poor medical practices. The deal also wouldn’t protect doctors’ personal assets or shield hospitals from some lawsuits.

Lawmakers from downstate Illinois, where an exodus of doctors has created a shortage of specialists, say they had to relent on those issues to get the caps that they hope will stem their health care crisis.

“There’s give and take,” said Sen. Bill Haine, D-Alton. “This is not doctor win, lawyer lose. This is patient win, community win, that’s it.”

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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