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House blinks, adjusts cap on medical suit damages

For the first time since the medical malpractice debate began nearly a year ago, the state House on Wednesday backed off its hard-line demand for a $250,000 cap on pain-and-suffering awards in medical malpractice lawsuits.

But the House offer didn't satisfy state senators, still seething from the governor's stinging accusation that they are caving in to the demands of trial lawyers and jeopardizing the public's access to health care.

So the Senate will stick with its plan to put witnesses under oath in an attempt to get at the truth behind skyrocketing medical malpractice insurance rates.

The House and Gov. Jeb Bush have insisted on a $250,000 cap. But on Wednesday, the House proposed a $500,000 cap, which could increase to $1-million for multiple plaintiffs, such as a husband and wife.

Senate President Jim King said it is unlikely the Senate will agree to any cap that doesn't include exceptions for egregious cases of malpractice.

"We're going to have to know that for the truly catastrophic event, there is an amount above whatever the cap is," King said.

Bush said he supports the new House proposal. "I think that shows pretty darn good faith, don't you?" he told reporters. "That shows the ability to reach out. Let's see now if the Senate will recognize the fact that our office, and the House, have proposed something that should be the place where we end up."

The House is scheduled to pass its new bill today, said Rep. Dudley Goodlette, R-Naples, the chief medical malpractice negotiator in the House.

Doctors have been campaigning for a $250,000 cap, saying it is the only way to rein in rising insurance costs they say are putting some physicians out of business and threatening access to health care for all Floridians.

Trial lawyers, however, say lawsuits are not to blame for rising rates and say the proposed cap would harm the poor and the elderly the most, with no guarantee that insurance costs would be reduced.

The House peace offering came the day after Senate leaders broke off negotiations with the House over the governor's rebuke, contained in an e-mail sent to campaign supporters. The move suggested there might be a quick end to the special session that began Wednesday.

Several Republican senators delivered speeches from the floor telling colleagues they were fighting to preserve the very structure of democracy.

"We cannot allow other parts of this government to come in and force legislation in this chamber that we honestly believe deserves further thought and consideration," said Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon.

Some senators complained that campaign contributors are being asked to pressure Republican senators into agreeing to a $250,000 cap.

Bush was unapologetic, dismissing the complaints and urging senators to focus on crafting a solution. Asked about the possibility that he might be force to testify under oath, he laughed and said, "Ridiculous."

The Senate Judiciary Committee is scheduled to meet this morning to set ground rules for subpoenaing witnesses and placing them under oath.

"I'm very committed to going ahead with fact-finding," King said after a joint meeting of the Senate Republican and Democratic caucuses. "I do feel strongly that anyone who comes before us is now under oath."

But taking that testimony and digesting it will take time, and King said there is little hope that a bill will be passed by Wednesday, the deadline for the current special session. Combined with the aftereffects of Bush's e-mail, the timing doesn't look good, King said.

"The prospects of this being brought to a quick closure are not good," King said.

_ Times staff writer Steve Bousquet contributed to this report.