“It’s close,” said state Sen. Preston Smith, R-Rome, who pushed the Senate bill through that chamber last week.
The House approved the bill on Thursday in a 136-34 vote, but raised to $350,000 the Senate’s $250,000 cap on pain-and-suffering damages for patients harmed by a negligent doctor. The House version also softens restrictions on lawsuits against emergency care providers by allowing such suits in the case of “clear and convincing evidence” of gross negligence.
State Rep. Bill Cummings, D-Rockmart, and state Rep. Barbara Massey Reece, D-Menlo, supported a proposed amendment that would have raised the cap to $750,000, but that measure failed by one vote.
“I represent more than doctors or lawyers or any special-interest groups,” Cummings said. “I represent people, and their concerns were that $350,000 was not a fair figure.”
Floyd County’s entire House delegation — Cummings, Reece and state Reps. Paul Smith, D-Rome, and Barry Loudermilk, R-Cassville — eventually voted for the version with the $350,000 cap on noneconomic damages. There is a $1.5 million aggregate cap, if three or more parties are found responsible.
“I think this is going to stem the flow of doctors out of the state of Georgia who say they can’t afford insurance,” Rep. Smith said. “Particularly in the South Georgia area, they have no coverage.”
Immediately after the House vote, the Senate reconvened to decide if it would accept the changes, but adoption failed by one vote. Sen. Smith said some senators wanted the weekend to consider the amendments, but a second vote could be scheduled as early as Monday.
“Some members really wanted the $250,000 cap because there’s a lot of evidence that it brings down insurance rates,” Sen. Smith said. “They’re concerned that a higher number won’t give the same impact.”
MAG Mutual, the state’s primary provider of medical malpractice insurance, submitted a letter last week promising to lower rates by 10 percent immediately after a tort reform bill with a $250,000 cap is enacted. It is unclear how the company will view the House version of the bill.
Loudermilk said he favored a $250,000 cap for the House version but accepted the higher number in the spirit of compromise.
“The cap is only on one portion of the award, the segment most abused,” he said, noting that damages remain unlimited for loss of income and medical expenses. “But we’re going from nothing to some actual tort reform.”
If neither the Senate nor House will budge on its version, the bill will go to a conference committee where negotiators will hammer out a compromise.
Citing an emotional three-hour debate in the House and the close vote on a $750,000 cap, Reece said she would prefer more discussion before the measure goes to Perdue.
“I certainly hope that it will go to a conference committee because it still needs work,” she said. “Hopefully, the Senate will be wise enough to see the split that occurred in the House.”
As for whether the new standards for medical malpractice lawsuits will actually improve medical care in Georgia, Cummings said he is cautiously optimistic.
“I sure hope, after all these years of talking about it, that it will make a difference,” he said. “Otherwise, someone has misled us.