JEFFERSON CITY — A measure to restrict awards for lawsuits cleared another obstacle on Thursday.
The bill, approved in the House of Representatives and introduced in the Senate, would restrict a case’s venue to the location where the injury took place and cap most punitive damages at $250,000. For health-care providers, it would limit punitive damages to $250,000 without regard to the number of people named in the case.
Many House Democrats said they supported the bill, but were concerned about the provision limiting liability for health-care providers because it would group doctors with drug and tobacco companies.
Minority Leader Jeff Harris, D-Columbia, said he could not support the measure despite his belief that changes in the civil liability system are necessary.
Harris said the bill had been hijacked by “drug companies and Big Tobacco” and that Gov. Matt Blunt and the House leadership had chosen to support those interests instead of those of ordinary Missourians.
The language of the bill, however, makes no specific mention of special protections for these types of businesses.
“There is nothing in this bill to give those types of businesses special protection,” said the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Richard Byrd, R-St. Louis County. “It applies the rules the same across the board.”
Blunt has said he strongly supports tort reform to protect doctors and encourage economic growth.
“The governor supports the tort-reform legislation and applauds the House for acting so quickly upon it,” Blunt spokesman Paul Sloca said.
House Speaker Rod Jetton, R-Bollinger, said provisions that restrict venues and cap punitive damages for health-care providers would have a notable impact on malpractice insurance premiums that Missouri doctors pay. Proponents argue high premiums are causing doctors to practice outside the state or to leave the profession.
Democrats, however, said only the states that have included insurance reform provisions have been able to reduce malpractice insurance premiums.
“Caps are not enough to lower premiums,” Rep. Brian Burnett, D-Jackson County, said. “Big corporations are being protected at the expense of the citizens of this state, and I don’t think it’s a mistake that the big fund-raisers of the majority party are reaping the benefits.”
Rep. Steve Hobbs, R-Mexico, said insurance premiums would fall and the state has put the insurance industry on notice that it would need to explain if premiums do not fall.
“We’re dedicated to this, and if the insurance rates don’t start going down, we’re going to come to the insurance companies next,” he said. “And we’re not going to wait very long.”
The issue elicited a degree of bipartisan support, but Democrats said the combination of the failure to address the issue of insurance reform and grouping of doctors and drug companies as medical care providers was too much to overcome.
“I was afraid that if we all voted yes, it would send the message that we’re done,” Rep. Judy Baker, D-Columbia, said. “The real teeth in this process of cutting insurance costs is in the insurance reform.”
An additional bill to address insurance reform is winding its way through committee. While Baker said it is insufficient, she said the additional bill is the right starting point.
That bill, also sponsored by Byrd, awaits a hearing in the House Insurance Policy Committee.