Sparked by complaints at town hall meetings last month about the impact of medical malpractice suits on healthcare costs, a battle is brewing between business advocates and lawyers over whether to limit damages in lawsuits against physicians and other medical professionals as part of a healthcare overhaul.
In advance of President Obama's address to a joint session of Congress on Wednesday, the American Association for Justice -- formerly the Association of Trial Lawyers of America -- has been mounting a public relations effort to dispel what it calls the "myth" that the fear of malpractice lawsuits accounts for astronomical healthcare costs.
Linda Lipsen, the association's chief lobbyist, said Wednesday that her group was prepared to fight any proposals that would restrict a patient's right to sue physicians for damages.
"Everything is on the table," she said when asked what tactics the group would use.
The group argues that GAO has found no evidence that the practice of "defensive medicine" fueled by a fear of lawsuits has driven up the costs of medical care.
On Wednesday, consumer advocates joined the campaign to head off any effort to limit the right to sue physicians. The Center for Justice & Democracy, which includes activist Erin Brockovich and filmmaker Michael Moore on its board of advisers, issued a statement expressing concern that "the rights of medical malpractice victims" will become "a political bargaining chip in the president's efforts to sell his healthcare plan."
But backers of imposing limits on medical malpractice awards, such as the legal arm of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, point to estimates that reducing liability and the need to practice "defensive" medicine could save more than $218 billion over 10 years.
To ensure meaningful cost-savings, they urge placing caps on damages paid to victims and creating "health courts" that would give medical experts, not civil court juries, the authority to decide malpractice cases.
Obama was jeered when he ruled out the possibility of capping noneconomic damages at an American Medical Association meeting in June.
AMA President James Rohack said in an interview he is hopeful that Obama will consider the health-courts proposal and other ways of restricting frivolous lawsuits. "This shows that he is really reaching across the aisle about tort reform," he said.
Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, a Senate Finance Committee negotiator, has indicated she wants to see language addressing medical malpractice suits in the committee's bill, which is set for markup next week. Finance ranking member Charles Grassley and Sen. Michael Enzi, R-Wyo., have also pushed for tort changes.
This article appears in the Sep. 12, 2009, edition of National Journal Daily.