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Political lines drawn in Iowa over capping medical malpractice suits

KGAN - Medical Malpractice PKG
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Tuesday, the Iowa Senate passed a bill that would impose a so-called "hard cap" on emotional damages in lawsuits filed against medical malpractice. Three years ago, Iowa Republican passed and signed into law legislation imposing a similar cap on less serious or non-fatal malpractice cases. Supporters of the move say hard caps in several other surrounding states make it difficult to attract medical talent needed in Iowa. The bill, passed along party lines, now goes to the House before reaching Governor Reynolds' desk. If signed into law, it would limit awards in court for "pain and suffering" to $750,000.

Opponents include families that have used medical malpractice lawsuits to seek justice for the loss of their loved ones. Kathryn Schussler lost her son to suicide in 2015. While a student at ISU, Dane Schussler was seen by counselors, who did not refer his case to specialists despite records showing Schussler indicated he had recently considered suicide. Weeks after that meeting, Schussler died from suicide. "We were blindsided," said Kathryn Schussler, "we never knew the signs, we didn't see it coming."

Schussler says her search for answers didn't start with legal action, but she was left with no choice after she says leaders at Iowa State refused to release certain records to her. Attorney Marty Diaz took her case, which ended in a six figure verdict in favor of the Schussler family.

Attorney Marty Diaz handled the Schussler family's case. He says a cap could make it harder for families to find lawyers willing to take on the significant costs that come in cases like this. "And if you place a cap, any cap, whatever the cap is, what you're doing is essentially shutting down the last place that people can go." Said Diaz.

Diaz says malpractice suits are a drop in the bucket of overall health care costs in Iowa. "I think the industry in Iowa is a $25 billion industry and lawsuits are about $18 million of that."

Iowa already has a "soft cap" on medical malpractice suits, limiting damages to $250,000 in less serous cases. Since it was signed into law by Governor Terry Branstad in 2017, legislative actions in other states led by Republican majorities, supporters say, have forced them to consider tougher restrictions.

"Most states surrounding Iowa do have a hard cap on non-economic damages and having a hard cap on non-economic damages means that hospitals can recruit and retain physicians that are desperately needed within this state." Said Kimberly Murphy with the Iowa Hospital Association. "It's a tough thing to figure out, how do we make sure that we are honoring what this patient has been through while still balancing the access to good quality care here in Iowa."

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Attorney Marty Diaz disagrees, saying there is no evidence he has seen showing laws like this attract more talent. He says leaders should be more concerned with preventing medical malpractice rather than limiting lawsuits if they want to really control costs. According to the CDC, in, 2017, more than 160,000 Americans died because of medical errors, making it the third leading cause of death in the United States.

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