Iowa legislature passes limits on medical malpractice lawsuits

DES MOINES — Most Republicans in the Iowa House and Senate have voted to set limits on pain and suffering damages from medical malpractice lawsuits. The move has been one of the governor’s priorities.

Under the new guidelines, those non-economic damages for medical malpractice claims against hospitals would be limited to a maximum $2 million. For clinics, nursing homes and individual physicians the cap would be $1 million. Representative Ann Meyer, a Republican from Fort Dodge who’s a nurse, said the cost of liability insurance is hurting recruitment and retention of doctors, particularly in rural areas.

“Iowa has a target on its back for out of state, predatory lawyers,” Meyer said. “We are seeing them coming in and trying these cases and getting large verdicts.”

The bill faced opposition from Democrats and 16 Republicans voted against it. Republican Representative Mark Cisneros of Muscatine said these aren’t frivolous lawsuits and more than 20 other states have similar caps that aren’t reducing medical malpractice insurance rates.

“What’s next on the priority list of corporate protection? Trucking companies? Carbon pipelines?” Cisneros asked. “Right now the corporate lobby is salivating at the prospect of passing this bill.”

Senator Jeff Reichman is among the majority of Republicans who voted for the bill. He’s from Montrose, a 15 minute drive from the hospital that closed in Keokuk last fall.

“I’m not naïve enough to think this is going to be the 100% fix,” Reichman said, “but what we need to decide today is are we going to have lottery sized settlements or when our constituents arrive and need that hospital is there going to be one there for them?”

Representative Megan Jones, a Republican from Sioux Rapids, said lawmakers are forgetting that medical malpractice verdicts for pain and suffering are for pain and suffering.

“These are people,” Jones said. “These are our friends, our neighbors and our loved ones. These are our babies and we’re not protecting them.”

Senator Jason Schultz, a Republican from Schleswig, said “guardrails” in the bill are necessary to prevent verdicts that can cause closures or bankruptcies for health care facilities.

“A civil action isn’t supposed to be a lottery for anybody. It’s compensation for a loss,” Schultz said. “It’s not to produce a windfall of unearned wealth.”

Senator Nate Boulton, a Democrat from Des Moines who’s an attorney, said victims of medical malpractice who win verdicts have suffered horrifically. “Call up any of these families that got a nuclear award. I think you’re going to hear about nuclear damages,” Boulton said. “And, no, they don’t feel like lottery winners.”

Governor Reynolds called the bill “reasonable medical malpractice reform” that will help Iowa’s health care system be “more reasonable and accessible.” Under the bill, economic losses and punitive damages for medical malpractice victims would remain unlimited. It also calls for creation of a task force to study medical errors.