Congresswoman: Tort reform to be a part of final health care bill

Chris Rizo Oct. 10, 2009, 4:25pm

Doris Matsui (D)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (Legal Newsline)-The health care overhaul bill congressional Democrats hope to send President Barack Obama this year will very likely contain some measure of tort reform, a Sacramento-area congresswoman told Legal Newsline on Saturday.

"Some aspect of tort reform will be a part of the bill," said U.S. Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Calif.

Her comment came a day after the director of the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, Douglas Elmendorf, said as much as $54 billion could be saved over the next 10 years if Congress enacts legal reforms including limits on medical malpractice lawsuits.

While that is a significant amount of money, Matsui said there are other issues that can be addressed to help drive down health care costs, such as a renewed push for preventive medicine, as part of the president's efforts to overhaul the nation's health care system.

Among other legal reforms, Republicans have suggested a cap on punitive damages and narrowing the statute of limitations on malpractice claims would reduce health care costs.

Matsui told Legal Newsline she is not so sure just how significant a savings such measures would bring.

"There is an assumption that tort reform is going to save lots and lots of dollars," she said. "What we understand from CBO is it's anywhere from 1 to 2 percent, which is not a whole lot. But we should not discount that."

Before speaking with Legal Newsline, Matsui hosted a town hall meeting in Sacramento on Saturday to discuss legislation winding its way through Congress that would change the way insurance companies do business in the United States.

She told the mostly supportive crowd that while the five bills -- three pending in the House and two in the Senate -- are each "a work in process," the Democrat-led Congress will send Obama a health care bill before the end of the year so it can be enacted Jan. 1.

"We will get a bill, a good bill, a very good bill," said Matsui, a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which has oversight over health care.

House Democrats, she said, are seeking to make the U.S. insurance industry "more stable and secure," expand access to medical care and lower costs. The president has made health care reform his No. 1 domestic initiative for the year.

"Our plan will put patients and doctors back in the driver's seat regarding medical decisions, -- not the government or insurance bureaucrats," she said.

The House is seeking to bar insurers from denying coverage and prohibit the insurance industry from charging higher premiums to consumers with a preexisting condition.

"Choice is an essential part of our economy and our national identity, and it's built into every part of this plan," Matsui said. "We are not eliminating private insurance. They have an important role to play, but we are making the system more efficient and holding insurance companies accountable."

In the House and Senate, lawmakers will separately develop one health care reform bill. The bills that pass out of the House and Senate will be merged in conference committee.

"That is when the fun begins," Matsui said. "That is when the president gets involved. He wants a bill by the end of the year."

In the House, the pending health care overhaul bills contain a public insurance option, which is aimed at injecting more competition into the health insurance marketplace. The two Senate proposals do not contain such a measure.

The Senate Finance Committee is expected to vote on one of the proposals Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said last week.

As for the political landscape, Matsui there is "lots of agreement" over the three House bills, while there are "some disagreements" about the two Senate proposals.

She added that she is committed to having a "robust" public option that the final Senate bill will almost assuredly lack.

Matsui said she is optimistic that by the end of the conference committee process the president will get a bill that he will support.

In the meantime, Matsui and she and other lawmakers are trying to hear from a range of stakeholders, including patients' groups, health care professionals, insurers, hospitals and drug companies to craft a better bill.

"Health care reform may work this time because we are all around the table," Matsui said.

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