St. Petersburg Times Online: Business

Weather | Sports | Forums | Comics | Classifieds | Calendar | Movies

Lawmakers sniff higher malpractice cap compromise

Higher award caps and other ideas dim chances that the session will meet Bush's Thursday deadline.

Published June 17, 2003

TALLAHASSEE - Lawmakers on Monday flirted with a medical malpractice compromise but held out little hope of meeting the governor's Thursday deadline.

The Senate might support capping noneconomic damages beyond the $250,000 Gov. Jeb Bush proposes, said Senate President Jim King. The House might agree to a higher cap, said House Speaker Johnnie Byrd.

But agreeing on the size of the cap could make this one of the most divisive special sessions ever, King said.

The session is scheduled to end Thursday but King doubts a compromise can be reached that quickly.

Bush, King said, "realizes that four days may be too optimistic."

Byrd said the Legislature could pass a bill immediately "if we could get the Senate to the table" but added, "I'll stay here as long as it takes to make sure Floridians have access to health care."

King said a majority of senators still believe a simple $250,000 cap doesn't account for the most egregious medical malpractice cases. But he said a higher limit, or a sliding scale for damages in differing types of cases, might win enough support.

"It's safe to assume that the Senate is prepared to pass some form of cap," King said. "The level of it is to be debated."

If the Senate were to propose a cap higher than the $250,000 the House passed earlier this year, "I'm sure we would look at it and consider it," said Rep. Dudley Goodlette, R-Naples, the chairman of the committee writing the House bill.

Protesters competed for attention Monday, some carrying pictures of dead loved ones and signs denouncing doctors near an ambulance with red lights blinking in the Capitol Courtyard.

A coalition of doctors, hospitals and businesses used the ambulance to emphasize their predictions of a "medical meltdown" in Florida if lawmakers don't find a way to cap noneconomic damages awarded in civil lawsuits.

Former House Speaker John Thrasher, leader of the coalition, endorsed Bush's plan for dealing with the crisis, noting lawmakers have "the power to heal."

Bush's plan has a $250,000 cap and also calls for insurance companies to file for a 20 percent rate reduction, but with a provision that allows them to bypass that if they can show such a reduction would keep them from making money.

"The ultimate losers are Floridians," predicted Wayne NeSmith, president of the Florida Hospital Association. "The question for lawmakers is how bad does it get before we find relief?"

Senators heard eight hours of testimony from experts of every stripe as they prepared to consider a bill later this week.

Even a couple of members of Congress showed up to dabble in legislative business. U.S. Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite, R-Brooksville, urged the state to resolve the problem because similar efforts in Congress are bogged down.

She suggested lawmakers adopt a plan similar to California's, in which $250,000 caps are placed on noneconomic damages and insurance rates are much lower than those in Florida.

Today, U.S. Rep. David Weldon, R-Melbourne, will testify before the Senate Committee on Health, Aging and Longterm Care.

No one seems optimistic about reaching a solution this week. King predicted it will be one of the most divisive sessions ever and likely to extend into next week before an agreement can be reached - if then.

King said the Senate is taking a look at all of the available options, including a Texas plan that would cap noneconomic damages at $250,000 for hospitals, $250,000 for doctors and $250,000 for HMOs, a system that would establish a maximum award at $750,000.

The Senate is also looking at a "three strikes" regulation on lawyers who file frivolous lawsuits.

A board comprised of two lawyers, two doctors and a citizen would review lawsuits and determine whether they are frivolous. Any lawyer deemed to be filing three frivolous lawsuits would be barred from filing future medical malpractice suits.

- Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

© Copyright, St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.