Soft cap on non-economic damages in medical malpractice gets bipartisan support in Iowa House

Iowa Representative Ashley Hinson, R-Marion, 2017 Legislature
Iowa Representative Ashley Hinson, R-Marion, 2017 Legislature

DES MOINES — Legislation capping medical malpractice awards that the Iowa Senate approved on a party-line vote fared better Wednesday in the House, where it was approved, 65-32.

The key to winning bipartisan support for Senate File 465 was an amendment that removed a hard cap on non-economic damage awards “in the most egregious cases,” said the floor manager Rep. Ashley Hinson, R-Marion. It would allow juries to make awards of more than $250,000 in cases of “substantial or permanent loss or impairment of bodily functions and substantial disfigurement.”

Originally, the bill would have capped non-economic damages — damages awarded for pain, suffering, physical impairment, inconvenience and mental anguish among others — at $250,000.

The amendment, adopted 97-0, made the bill more palatable to Democrats who previously opposed it.

“I do not necessarily believe, based on the statistics and information I’ve received, that the passage of this bill will in fact lead to lower medical malpractice premiums … (and) make Iowa a better place to live, but I have been informed by medical professional that I respect that this bill is important for my rural area,” said Rep. Mary Wolfe, D-Clinton

However, Rep. Marti Anderson, D-Des Moines, called the changes unnecessary because medical malpractice insurance is inexpensive in Iowa “because jury verdicts have remained predictably moderate over the course of decades.”

The number of medical liability suits filed has been on a steady decline for at least a decade, she said. That’s “partly because of the common sense of Iowans … we don’t have juries that are going to give jackpot awards.”

In the end, 12 Democrats joined Republicans in approving the bill while four Republicans opposed it.

In addition to capping non-economic damages except in the most extreme cases, SF 465 would create a certificate of merit, requiring plaintiffs’ lawyers to submit proof of medical malpractice at the beginning of the case.

The legislation pitted the interests of health care professionals and attorneys representing plaintiffs and medical malpractice insurance companies, Hinson said.

“So I’m going to say right upfront I am not a lawyer and I am not doctor. I’m one of those patients,” Hinson said in introducing the bill. “I’m somebody who wants to make the system work better for everyone.”

Caps have been shown to lower premiums for medical malpractice insurance and could lower health care costs, she said. States with similar reforms and caps have seen increases in number of practicing physicians.

Iowa ranks 42nd when it comes to the number of physicians per capita as well as 51st for the number of emergency-medicine physicians per capita and second-lowest number of OB-GYNs per 10,000 women, according to health care provider groups.

“Want to create a really great environment that works for doctors and for patients and for attorneys who are working for those patients who might have an extreme and egregious adverse health outcome,” Hinson said.

The House approved a change in the effective date to make clear SF 465 would apply to future medical malpractice cases, not those now in litigation.

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