On Wednesday the US House of Representatives passed the misleadingly-named “Protecting Access to Care Act” on a largely party-line vote of 218-210 (all of the ‘yes’ votes came from Republicans; the noes included 191 Democrats and 19 Republicans). There is no indication yet whether the Senate will take up this little-noticed piece of legislation, but it is worth keeping an eye on, because the provisions of the bill could dramatically curtail patients’ rights. Earlier this month the Trump administration issued a statement of support for the bill – signaling that the President will sign the legislation if it ever reaches his desk.
Earlier this week the website HuffPost published a detailed analysis of the bill by a law professor from New York University. According to that article, the legislation would severely limit the “non-economic” damages that could be awarded in medical malpractice suits involving “injuries like permanent disability, mutilation, trauma, loss of a limb, blindness, sexual or reproductive harm, and other types of suffering and pain. HR 1215 would federally-mandate that if you suffer the most severe non-economic injuries, they are worth exactly $250,000 (no matter what the local jury finds).” In addition, the bill would impose an arbitrary time limit of three years on healthcare lawsuits, making it impossible for injured people to claim compensation for problems that emerged only slowly over a longer period of time.
The measure, in other words, would override state law to protect the economic interests of doctors, hospitals, the drug industry, medical device manufacturers and the insurers who cover all of them.
“Non-economic damages” have long been a target of people seeking to limit the rights of patients seeking redress when they are injured by someone else’s negligence. They are often referred to as ‘pain and suffering’ damages, but that shorthand makes them seem less tangible and more subjective than they really are. When someone’s life is altered in a grave way by inept surgery or an unsafe drug the damage done goes beyond such easily quantifiable things as medical bills or lost income. Altering the entire trajectory of an individual’s life – or, indeed, the lives of an entire family if the affected person will now require significant, on-going care – is not something that can be accounted for simply by adding up the doctor’s bills and lost work time (both of which are defined as economic damages).
With so much media attention currently focused on the Congressional effort to repeal Obamacare it is easy for far-reaching bills like this to slip past with little public notice. Indeed, while HR 1215 has received a fair amount of attention in specialist publications for the medical profession there has been almost no mainstream, national media coverage of this effort to restrict the right of ordinary Americans to be compensated for medical negligence.
The fact is that this should not be a partisan issue. While the House vote was largely on party lines, a look at the roll call reveals that many of the 19 Republicans who joined Democrats in opposing the bill are among the House’s most conservative members. I hope that senators of both parties will see this legislation for what it really is: an effort to put profits ahead of people, rushed through the House with little discussion. For the sake of patients throughout the country, the Senate should ignore it and focus its attention on more pressing matters.
Congress.gov: HR1215 Status Page
Justia.com: Non-economic Damages