House revives tort reform
A last-ditch effort to revive a proposal advocating medical malpractice reform and tort reform failed in the state House yesterday.
The issue appeared dead earlier this session, after separate proposals in the House and Senate were shelved at the committee level. But this week, House Health Chairman Josh Green, an emergency room doctor and the strongest supporter of tort reform, amended a bill relating to health care to include the reforms.
The proposal in Senate Bill 2160 included a cap on "noneconomic damages" that can be awarded in a malpractice case, a key step, supporters say, in bringing down medical malpractice premiums paid by doctors.
Recognizing that there were not enough votes on the floor to pass the measure, House leadership took the customary procedural move of recommitting the bill to committee.
"I think the members -- after our discussions the past two days -- felt that the votes are not there on the floor," said House Speaker Calvin Say (D, St. Louis Heights-Wilhelmina Rise-Palolo Valley).
The move to recommit promoted some argument, mostly by Republicans, but also from at least one Democrat who argued that the debate over tort reform should be done in the open so the public can see where lawmakers stand on the issue.
"This motion to recommit is a motion to stifle debate and consideration," said Rep. Della Au Belatti (D, Tantalus-Makiki). "I urge the members in this chamber not to squander this opportunity to find a solution to the problem of health care that is facing the citizens and the people of this state."
Supporters argue that such reform is needed to lower costs for practitioners in Hawaii, enabling hospitals to keep and recruit doctors, particularly specialists in rural areas. Opponents, including many lawyers, contend caps on noneconomic damages are often arbitrary and unfair, and that tort reform does not significantly reduce premiums.
Say said supporters had not sufficiently backed the argument that reforms would bring down the cost of medical malpractice premiums.
He added that Democratic leadership is focusing on other measures aimed at addressing health care concerns. Those measures include a proposal this year to provide tax incentives and loan forgiveness to hospitals and doctors who practice in rural areas.
Green agreed with Belatti and had sought to have an open debate on the matter, but said he would continue working for improvements to the state's health care system.
"You win some, you lose some," said Green (D, Keauhou-Honokohau). "We will accomplish good things, still, this session on health care reform, and I'm optimistic we'll all come together."