February 18, 2011
With a growing consensus that health care reform must address medical malpractice, President Obama and House Republicans this week offered competing approaches. By a vote of 18 to 15, the House Judiciary Committee approved along party lines the Help, Efficient, Accessible, Low-cost, Timely Healthcare Act (HEALTH Act; H.R. 5) which would provide certain uniform federal standards for medical malpractice claims by capping non-economic damages at $250,000, limiting punitive damages to $250,000 or twice the economic damages and restricting attorneys' fees available to plaintiffs' attorneys. Supporters hope that the full House will pass the measure within a few weeks, but efforts in past Congresses have failed even when the Republicans held the majority. One hurdle in gaining unanimous Republican support is the bill's strong preemption of state laws, which is a necessary component in addressing the problem. Republicans often balk at perceived infringements on states' rights. Meanwhile, the President's new budget would grant $250 million to the states to help in the revision of state medical malpractice laws. His proposal would create special "health courts" staffed by judges with expertise in medical malpractice matters. These judges would replace juries in making decisions in medical cases. The plaintiffs' bar is opposed to both the House legislation and the President's proposal.