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Senate HELP Panel Approves Medical Errors Bill

March 9, 2005—The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee on Wednesday approved legislation aimed at improving patient safety.

The bill (S 544), approved by voice vote, would establish a legal framework for health care providers to report medical errors without fear of the data being used in malpractice lawsuits and would set up a database to track such errors to analyze trends and prevent repeating common mistakes.

The Senate unanimously passed a nearly identical medical errors measure last year. The House passed its own version of the legislation in 2003. Senate leaders named conference committee members after their vote, but the House never appointed its conferees and the legislation languished.

The committee approved this year's bill with the understanding that some concerns about the use of the data raised by ranking Democrat Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts would be resolved before the measure goes to the floor.

HELP Chairman Sen. Michael B. Enzi, R-Wyo., agreed to work with Kennedy and insert a colloquy into the record that clarifies the intent of the bill is not to bar use of the information in criminal cases.

"We should make clear in the legislation that the privilege does not shelter criminal acts," Kennedy said. He also urged clarification to ensure that the measure "does not allow the good intentions of the legislation to inadvertently conceal information that should be in the public domain."

The momentum for the patient safety legislation came after an Institute of Medicine report in 1999 found that medical errors cause up to 98,000 deaths a year.

It took five years of negotiations on ways to gather and analyze data about medical mistakes without exposing health care providers to added liability before the Senate reached a bipartisan deal last July. House and Senate leaders disagree about which chamber is to blame for the failure to reach a conference agreement in the 108th Congress.

The legislation is expected to pass the Senate again easily.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee has not yet scheduled a markup of its version of a medical errors bill.

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