The U.S. House of Representatives has passed H.R. 5, the Protecting Access to Healthcare (PATH) Act. The proposed law would limit the amount of compensation a plaintiff could receive in a medical malpractice lawsuit. The bill’s proponents claim that the change will result in lower insurance premiums and healthcare costs. Critics say that the law would protect negligent healthcare providers from the consequences of their own wrongdoing.
The PATH Act would cap non-economic damages at $250,000 in a medical malpractice lawsuit. This means that while an injured patient’s expenses for medical care and lost wages would continue to be covered in full, intangible damages such as pain and suffering would not be compensable above the $250,000 limit. A number of states already impose similar limits, but the proposed law would impose a federal standard throughout the United States. The law would apply to all medical negligence, including malpractice, unsafe pharmaceuticals and abuse and neglect in nursing homes.
Advocates of the proposed law refer to the change as medical malpractice reform, and claim that it will reduce the number of “frivolous lawsuits” filed against medical practitioners. According to these proponents, expensive lawsuits lead to higher malpractice insurance premiums for medical practitioners, driving up the cost of healthcare for everyone. Thus, these advocates say, the bill will protect access to healthcare for the American people.
Opponents of the bill counter that the real purpose of the PATH Act is to protect negligent medical providers, pharmaceutical corporations and insurance companies from the legal consequences of medical malpractice. According to these critics, caps on damages would not only result in injured patients not receiving the compensation they deserve, it could actually lead to a decrease in the quality of healthcare, as medical practitioners would have less reason to fear the consequences of their negligence.
Critics point out a perverse consequence of the proposed law: the people most affected by the limits on compensation would necessarily be those who have experienced the most physical pain as the result of medical negligence. In addition, by capping non-economic damages, the bill has the potential to discriminate against certain members of society. When seniors and children are victims of medical malpractice, they have lower economic damages, on average, in terms of lost wages and earning potential. Limiting non-economic damages thus affects these more vulnerable victims disproportionately.
Before the PATH Act can become law, it faces a tough battle in the Senate, and the strong possibility of a Presidential veto.