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House votes to cap malpractice awards

The House voted Thursday to limit the monetary damages courts award in medical malpractice cases, a top goal of doctors, hospitals, many businesses and the Bush administration.

The measure, approved 229-196, would cap punitive awards in malpractice suits at $250,000. It would apply to suits filed against doctors, hospitals, health maintenance organizations and manufacturers of drugs and medical devices.

President Bush has pushed aggressively for the bill, and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., a former heart surgeon, has pledged to bring it to a vote in the Senate. Its fate there is uncertain, however, because many Democrats oppose it and the supporters likely will need 60 votes to overcome a potential filibuster in the 100-member chamber.

Some GOP senators also have voiced doubts about the measure. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., is circulating a letter citing a private poll that showed the cap on damages "is particularly unpopular with Republicans" and "doesn't seem to excite the interest or support of more than about one-fourth of respondents."

Proponents say the measure would curb the escalating costs of malpractice insurance, which has prompted many doctors and some hospitals to close shop. But opponents say it would simply benefit powerful health care groups while preventing ordinary citizens from claiming their due in court if they are harmed by wrongful medical actions.

Thursday's vote fell almost entirely along party lines: 16 Democrats voted in favor of the measure and nine Republicans opposed it.

GOP leaders said the health care system's problems will worsen without the proposed malpractice limits. "It's not just doctors who are feeling the crunch," said Rep. Tom Reynolds, R-N.Y. "Hospitals and other producers are also reaching their breaking point."

But Democrats said the legislation would not guarantee lower insurance rates or an end to unjustified lawsuits. The bill, said Rep. Max Sandlin, D-Texas, "is nothing but a sham."

The daylong debate capped a lobbying effort that pitted doctors, hospitals and insurers against trial lawyers and consumer advocacy groups. Both sides have spent weeks publicizing their cause, bringing in victims to highlight the bill's virtues or flaws.