WASHINGTON -- The Senate on Monday once again rebuffed a Republican effort to limit jury awards in medical malpractice cases, taking the issue -- a high priority for both President Bush and the Majority Leader, Senator Bill Frist, below right, -- off the agenda for this year.
In back-to-back votes, Republicans fell far short of the 60 senators necessary to proceed on two malpractice-related measures. The first would have capped jury awards in all lawsuits against doctors and health care institutions; the second would have applied caps only to cases involving obstetricians, who have been especially hard-hit by malpractice rates.
Three Republicans -- Senators Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Michael D. Crapo of Wyoming and Richard C. Shelby of Alabama -- joined with Democrats in blocking the measures from consideration. It was the fourth time in the past three years that Republicans had tried, and failed, to bring medical malpractice legislation to a vote in the Senate.
"Health care dollars should be spent on patients, and not on lawyers who are abusing the system," Mr. Frist, a heart-lung transplant surgeon, said in introducing the bills.
Mr. Frist's Democratic counterpart, Minority Leader Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, left, branded the effort "a waste of the Senate's time."
Mr. Frist and other supporters of revamping malpractice law, including the American Medical Association, have argued for years that rising insurance rates, fueled by skyrocketing jury awards, are driving doctors out of business and compromising patient care.
The Senate gallery was filled with white-coated health professionals who joined Republicans at an afternoon news conference and then watched Monday's votes.
The bills would have limited payments by individual doctors to $250,000 in malpractice cases and capped payments by health care institutions at $250,000. In cases that involved more than one institution, the total maximum jury award would have been $750,000.
Opponents of the measures, including Democrats and the association representing plaintiff's lawyers, said the bills would strip patients of their right to seek redress in court. They cited studies attributing the increase in malpractice rates to insurance company practices, not lawsuits.
"The explanation for these premium spikes can be found not in legislative halls or courtrooms, but in the boardrooms," said one Democratic opponent, Senator Edward M. Kennedy, below right, of Massachusetts.
In a sense, the votes had more to do with politics than policy. Mr. Frist knew going into the debate that the measures were likely to be blocked but wanted to put Democrats on record before the midterm elections in November. After the votes, he issued a news release headlined "Frist Denounces Democrat Obstruction of Medical Liability Reform."