Patients rally in Vegas against bill limiting malpractice awards

LAS VEGAS (AP) -- Medical malpractice victims and patient advocates protested Tuesday's introduction of a bill in Congress that would limit how much money can be awarded for damages when someone sues a hospital or doctor.

About two dozen people gathered downtown in front of the Lloyd D. George Federal Courthouse carrying signs that read "Protect Patients not Insurance Companies." The rally was sponsored by the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, a citizen's watchdog group

"It's as unjust as the injuries that occurred to us," said Dianne Meyer, who lost both legs after a large kidney stone caused her to go into septic shock. She said an emergency room doctor failed to follow up with her about lab tests showing the stone.

The Patients First Act, which was formally introduced Tuesday by Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., would establish a $250,000 cap on pain-and-suffering damages awarded in medical malpractice cases. The bill would not apply to a person's financial losses related to an injury or disability.

Ensign said the bill aims to curtail frivolous lawsuits that have caused malpractice insurance premiums to increase, forcing some doctors to close their practices.

States across the country have been grappling with whether to impose similar limits. Last summer, Nevada Gov. Kenny Guinn summoned the Legislature for a special session, during which lawmakers passed a measure capping most jury awards at $350,000.

"We are in a situation in which runaway jury awards have caused medical malpractice rates to drive qualified doctors out of our state, and sometimes out of business altogether," Ensign said in a statement. "My passion on this issue is caused by the fact that so many patients are in jeopardy today."

But Meyer, who has a lawsuit pending against the hospital and doctor who treated her, said the bill would severely limit the amount of money she could receive since she was semiretired at the time of her illness.

"Someone has to be held accountable," she said.

Nevada's Democratic Sen. Harry Reid said the bill would not receive the necessary votes Wednesday to keep it alive.

"There has not been a single hearing on this bill," Reid said. "I know (Ensign's) heart is in the right place, but this legislation will not get off the Senate floor. ... We are not going to let it proceed," Reid said.

Instead of focusing on malpractice jury awards, Reid said Congress should help doctors pay rising insurance premiums. Reid said he is working on a bill that would give tax credits to doctors who have no malpractice claims against them.

"We want real reform," he said. "There are things that need to be done."

One study by the National Academy of Sciences estimated medical errors kill 44,000 to 98,000 Americans a year.

"Citizens should not be required to give up their day in court," said state Assemblywoman Peggy Pierce, D-Las Vegas, who attended Tuesday's rally.

Pierce said she is not convinced malpractice lawsuits are to blame for rising insurance premiums.

"There's no question insurance rates went up because, like everyone else, insurance companies took a beating on Wall Street," she said. "That's translated into a medical emergency and there's something unjust about that."

Jason Phillips, 37, of Las Vegas, is grateful his case has been settled.

"I really don't want to see other families go through what we went through," said Phillips, who sued a doctor for misdiagnosing his daughter's illness. His daughter Brittany, 13, suffered a stroke and permanent brain damage.

"She's not the first and she's not going to be the last," he said. "It's not about getting money. At least I know when I die, somebody will be able to take care of her."


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