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Clinton and Obama Offer Bill to Encourage Disclosure of Medical Errors

SEPTEMBER 28, 2005 -- Democratic Senators Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois offered legislation Wednesday that they hope will help move Congress out of its stalemate on medical liability overhaul.

Their bill would provide liability protections for physicians who disclose medical errors to patients and would encourage early settlement before litigation is pursued.

It also would encourage physicians to apologize for errors—with the aim of reducing the number of medical malpractice lawsuits and forcing physicians to learn from their mistakes, Clinton said.

"Medical errors are out of control in this country," Obama said, adding that medical errors are the eighth-leading cause of death in the United States, taking 98,000 lives a year. "This is unacceptable and we need to do more."

The measure would call for the creation of a National Medical Error Disclosure and Compensation (MEDiC) program. Injuries would be reported to a designated officer, who would determine whether they resulted from medical errors. If an error occurred, the hospital or physician would have to disclose an account of the incident to the patient and enter into compensation negotiations.

The program also would require the hospital or participating physician to apologize to the patient. The apology would be kept confidential and couldn't be used in any legal proceedings as an admission of guilt, according to the bill.

Health care providers currently are not guaranteed such protection, so they are reluctant to report their errors, Clinton said, which then fuels malpractice lawsuits.

"Instead of keeping patients in the dark . . . we should encourage honesty and accountability," Obama said. "When patients hear the truth, they sue less. The reward is the settlement and health care professionals can learn from their mistakes."

He pointed to the University of Michigan Hospital System's full disclosure program, which reduced the number of pending lawsuits against the hospital by half and cut the average defense litigation cost by $30,000.

"We want to build on the results of the local level and make it national," Obama said.

The bill does not include medical malpractice caps, an issue pushed by President Bush and GOP lawmakers but which has stalled in Congress. Republicans say the caps would curb rising malpractice awards, which have caused malpractice premiums to escalate and driven physicians out of the medical business. Democrats say caps are unfair to injured patients.

The House in July passed legislation (HR 5) that would cap noneconomic damages awarded in medical malpractice suits for pain and suffering at $250,000, but the bill has not moved forward in the Senate.

Similar bills have passed through the House eight times before, but the issue has not been brought up for a vote in the Senate.

Obama said he was confident his bill would move through Congress more easily because the disclosure angle will gain support from lawmakers in both parties.

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