House backs limits on medical malpractice

Lab-coat clad physicians rallied at the Missouri Capitol while lawmakers endorsed a measure Wednesday seeking to reinstate limits on noneconomic damages in medical malpractice lawsuits.

The legislation attempts to re-impose a $350,000 cap on noneconomic damages for issues such as pain and suffering that was struck down by the Missouri Supreme Court in 2012. The high court concluded the law establishing the cap violated a right to a jury trial that it said had been embedded in the Missouri Constitution since 1820. To avoid the constitutional concern, the House bill would eliminate a common-law right to file a lawsuit over health care services and establish a new statutory right to sue.

Supporters contend the lawsuit limits must be re-established to protect the medical community and protect Missourians’ access to health care. The bill’s backers said a cap would reduce health costs, the use of defensive medicine and the potential for doctors to leave for other states. They noted the measure would not affect what patients can receive for medical bills, lost wages and punitive damages.

“The question is: Do we want doctors in our communities or don’t we?” said sponsoring Rep. Eric Burlison, R-Springfield. “Do we want to have affordable access to care in our communities?”

About 100 doctors rallied Wednesday at the state Capitol urging lawmakers to approve the medical malpractice measure. Some watched when the House voted 94-61 to approve the legislation and send it to the Senate.

Dr. David Tannehill, a critical care physician at Mercy Hospital in St. Louis, said Missouri’s lack of a cap for noneconomic damages is affecting patient care and the cost of practicing medicine. He said the Legislature needs to reinstate it as quickly as possible.

“We face the risk of malpractice every day,” said Tannehill, who is in his fourth year of practice. “We face it in the room with patients and whenever we order a test.”

Opponents argue the right to a jury trial must be protected and that there is no guarantee any savings would be passed on to health care providers. They said the lawsuit limits could hurt patients.

“This bill would remove the incentive to make sure that our parents, ultimately ourselves, get quality care,” said Rep. Stephen Webber, D-Columbia. “That is wrong.”

Republican Missouri House Speaker Tim Jones has made the reinstatement of the liability limits a priority for the 2014 session. A similar bill passed the Republican-led House last year but stalled in the Senate, which also is controlled by Republicans. Senators debated separate legislation Wednesday that included a similar effort to restore the limit on noneconomic damages. The bill did not come to a vote.

A dozen House Republicans joined Democrats in voting against that chamber’s legislation Wednesday.

Among the GOP critics was Rep. Jeff Grisamore, who questioned what would happen to victims and said an arbitrary cap for noneconomic damages is immoral.

“This bill does, very much, infringe on the rights of our most vulnerable citizens and their constitutional rights to a trial by jury,” said Grisamore, R-Lee’s Summit.

An upper limit of $350,000 for noneconomic damages such as pain and suffering was a significant piece of Missouri Republicans’ efforts in 2005 to curb liability lawsuits.

Before then, Missouri had an inflation-adjusted cap of $579,000 for noneconomic damages against each defendant for each act of negligence.

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