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Obama, GOP differ on medical legal liability

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama remains opposed to limits on damages in medical liability cases, the White House said Thursday, even though he responded favorably to a Republican lawmaker recommending legislation along those lines to restrain health costs.

“I said West Virginia passed medical liability reforms and we should do it. Try it and you’ll like it,” Rep. Shelley Moore Capito said she told the president.

“He said, ‘I’m all for it,’ or, ‘sounds great to me,”’ the West Virginia Republican said Thursday in an interview, recalling the president’s response at his meeting a day earlier with the House Republican rank and file.

Capito said that in her comments, she did not refer specifically to placing limits on damages, which is a central feature of the law that has been in effect in her state since 2003.

The White House said the president had not altered his views.

The president “does not support caps on medical malpractice awards, since they can be unfair to people who’ve been wrongfully harmed. However, he does want to work with Republicans to bring down costs in the health system and improve care,” said Nick Pappas, a White House spokesman.

Republicans included a proposal for damage caps in the budget they passed through the House earlier this year. The plan shows about $30 billion in savings from Medicare through 2021, much of it resulting from proposed legislation to limit awards in medical liability lawsuits.

GOP negotiators are also pressing for caps as part of the deficit-reduction talks being led by Vice President Joseph Biden, according to numerous officials familiar with the discussions.

The issue long has been a fault line between the political parties.

Physicians and manufacturers, backed by most Republicans, generally favor limits on legal damages, arguing they would cut down on frivolous lawsuits and reduce costly defensive medicine.

Trial lawyers and consumer groups, who generally are aligned with Democrats, counter that limits on liability would lessen the incentive for companies and health care providers to act responsibly and make it harder for anyone who is injured to recover damages in proportion with the harm.

The West Virginia law generally limits damages for noneconomic loss, often referred to as “pain and suffering,” to $250,000. The limit is $500,000 in the most serious cases, including those involving wrongful death or injury that renders a victim permanently unable to care for himself or herself.

The legislation backed by House Republicans, which recently cleared committee on a near party-line vote, places a $250,000 cap on awards for pain and suffering. It also limits punitive damages.

Obama’s proposals, contained in a budget he unveiled last winter, do not address the issue.

He called for $250 million in grants for states to rewrite their laws on medical malpractice to “fairly compensate patients who are harmed by negligence, while at the same time improving the quality of health care and reducing medical costs associated with ‘defensive medicine.”’

Money could be used by states to establish special health courts, offer legal protection to doctors, hospitals and others who use electronic health records, or establish rules requiring health care providers to set up a system to report medical errors and offer fair compensation to a patient.

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Associated Press writer Jim Kuhnhenn contributed to this report.

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