Limited Liability Faces Senate Hurdle; GOP Fights for Democrat Votes on Medical Reform Bill

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Legislation to limit medical liability passed the House last month but is facing a tough sell in the Senate, where supporters are fighting to get at least some Democrats on board.

In Arkansas on Thursday, a crowd gathered outside the Little Rock office of Arkansas Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln to urge her to support the legislation. The event was organized by the Coalition for Affordable and Reliable Healthcare, which is lobbying Senate Democrats on the issue.

Speaking to the crowd, which included many doctors, was Leanne Dyess. She said her husband suffered permanent brain damage from a car crash last year in Mississippi because they couldn't find a neurosurgeon to provide immediate care. Neurosurgeons had been forced out of practice on the Mississippi Gulf Coast by rising medical liability costs.

"Like most Americans, I had heard about some of these frivolous suits," Mrs. Dyess said. "But I never asked, 'At what cost?' Well, as I watched Tony's hospital call all over the state and other states looking for a specialist to take care of him I finally understood the cost. And believe me, it's a terrible cost to pay."

Medical liability reform is a priority of President Bush and top Republicans, such as Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee. But Senate Democrats almost uniformly are opposed to the idea. Republicans do not have the 60 votes needed to overcome blocking or delay tactics.

In many states, including Florida, Mississippi, New Jersey and Nevada, doctors face extremely high medical liability insurance premiums, which are forcing some to move to other states or to retire. Supporters of the reform legislation say frivolous lawsuits and high damage awards are to blame.

Capping damages, they say, will help reduce premiums and ensure that doctors can continue treating patients.

But Democrats say limiting medical liability would not reduce premiums and is unfair to patients injured by negligence. …