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March 13, 2003

House Commits Malpractice Against Medical Victims

Statement by Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook on House Passage of Medical Malpractice Legislation, H.R. 5

The House has committed a horrendous act of cruelty and injustice against innocent victims of medical negligence and their families. This legislation will do little or nothing to slow the increases in malpractice insurance premiums for doctors, because it is clear from all available evidence that insurance company pricing policies, not damage awards, are the cause of premium hikes. The bill’s $250,000 cap on pain-and-suffering damages will do nothing more than punish those who have been paralyzed, blinded, brain-damaged or otherwise horribly injured – all for the sake of more profits for insurers. It will discriminate against children, seniors, homemakers and others who have little or no lost wages to recover. It will keep legitimate cases out of court, because of new limits on the time to file cases and because potential jury awards won’t, in many cases, be worth the considerable costs of bringing a case against wealthy insurance companies.

This bill is an affront to the American public and a reward to big corporations for their financial support of many members of Congress. It was sold as a measure to help doctors struggling to pay their malpractice premiums. But while it does nothing to lower premiums, it does shield big HMOs, drug companies, hospitals, nursing homes and other health care-related companies from full accountability for even the most egregious and negligent acts. Its cap on non-economic damages and punitive damages will mean that HMOs and drug makers can harm consumers with virtual impunity because they will know that if they are caught in a wrongful act, they will receive only modest punishment compared to the damages they inflict.

The real problem is an epidemic of preventable medical errors, which kill up to 100,000 people each year and injure hundreds of thousands more. Most malpractice is caused by just a small number of doctors – five percent of doctors are responsible for more than half of all malpractice payments. Most victims never even file a lawsuit.

This bill devalues the lives and lost opportunities of patients who do not earn big paychecks. Under this bill, the life of Jesica Santillan, who died after receiving a heart and lung of the wrong blood type, would be worth, at most, $250,000. But the life of a highly paid CEO of a major insurance company would be worth tens of millions of dollars. Is this the type of justice we want for America?

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