With Eyes On Healthcare Reform, Another Patients’ Rights Battle Brews

Nearly two dozen advocacy organizations have teamed to oppose legislation that would limit patients' right to malpractice awards.

While public attention might be on this week’s second anniversary of healthcare reform — and next week’s legal challenges against it at the Supreme Court — consumer advocates already have moved onto the next battle for patients’ rights in Congress.

Nearly two dozen consumers’ groups wrote a letter Wednesday to GOP House Speaker John Boehner, Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, and other lawmakers to object to H.R. 5, the Help Efficient, Accessible, Low-cost, Timely Healthcare (HEALTH) Act.

Although its supporters argue the legislation — which has been on the table since Republicans retook control of the House last year — would help contain healthcare costs, opponents say the opposite would be true.

The letter to congressional leaders signed by Consumer Watchdog and 21 other prominent public interest groups called the legislation “an outrageously broad proposal that covers not only cases involving medical malpractice, but also cases involving unsafe drugs and nursing home abuse and neglect.”

The organization calls on Congress to “focus on improving patient safety and reducing deaths and injuries, not insulating negligent providers from accountability, harming patients and saddling taxpayers with the cost, as H.R. 5 would do.”

H.R. 5 would cap non-economic malpractice damages at $250,000 per case.

The letter from the consumer groups cites an Institute of Medicine study more than a decade old, which found up to 98,000 deaths in hospitals due to medical errors. Experts agree that there has been no meaningful reduction in medical errors in the United States since then, the letter writers say.

For example:

  • About 1 in 7 hospital Medicare patients experience a medical error, 44 percent of which are preventable. These errors cost Medicare $4.4 billion a year.
  • Medical errors occur in one-third of hospital admissions, as much as 10 times more common than previously estimated.
  • Lost lives and disabilities caused by medical error cost between $393 billion and $958 billion in 2006, equivalent to 18 percent to 45 percent of total U.S. health-care spending.

The medical malpractice liability limits in H.R. 5 are modeled after a California state law that failed to reduce malpractice insurance premiums or overall health costs, the purported aim of the federal bill, according to Consumer Watchdog, one of the signatories to the letter. Medical malpractice insurance premiums increased 450 percent in California in the 13 years after liability limits were enacted, the organization adds. California voters approved an insurance rate regulation law in 1988. In the first three years after the insurance regulation law was approved, malpractice premiums fell 20 percent and then stabilized even as premiums across the country continued to fluctuate, Consumer Watchdog says.


Scott Nance is the editor and publisher of the news site The Washington Current. He has covered Congress and the federal government for more than a decade.

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