The Iowa House Health and Human Services Committee advanced a bill capping noneconomic damages at $1 million for medical malpractice cases in Iowa. The bill passed 12-9, with Republican Representatives Brian Lohse and Eddie Andrews joining Democrats in opposition to the bill.
Republican Rep. Ann Meyer stressed the bill only caps the noneconomic damages and does nothing for economic and punitive damages. The problem is “very real” Meyer said and it jeopardizes future medical care in Iowa.
“Iowa already ranks 44th in the nation for physicians per capita,” she said.
The bill will help Iowa attract physicians and put the state on a level playing field with bordering states.
“This bill is absolutely necessary for our state,” Meyer said.
Legislators have to balance the need to compensate people who have suffered injuries from medical malpractice with making public policy decisions that keep the healthcare industry stable.
“We’re not the only legislature that has had to make this decision,” she said. “Twenty-eight states currently have either a hard cap on noneconomic damages or total, including all of our surrounding states with the exception of Minnesota and Illinois.”
Meyer said the bill does “nothing” to limit the right to a jury trial and provides all economic and punitive damages to the patient and their family.
She added that Iowa’s liability environment continues to get worse and juries have awarded bigger damages than previously seen.
“The amount Iowa juries are awarding is now unlimited,” she said. “No amount of money though will ever make up for the loss of a loved one. And I know that from personal experience.”
Meyer told a story about her twin boys — Nick and Jake. They were born early. They spent five years together as a family before Nick passed away from a medical error.
“No amount of money will ever bring Nick back and I feel that loss every day,” Meyer said. “Fifty thousand, $500,000, $5 million, $500 million will not bring my son back. I also want to tell you about my other son, Jake. He’s in his first year of med school. He’s a good kid. I want my smart, kind-hearted and caring son back in Iowa. Caring and treating Iowans, because he’s the kind of doctor we need in Iowa.”
The committee adopted a pair of amendments, but rejected an amendment offered by Lohse to increase the cap to $5 million. Lohse called it an “attempt at compromise.”
Ultimately, though, Republicans refused to budge. Republicans — outside of Andrews and Lohse — shot down the amendment and kept the cap at just $1 million.
Democrat Rep. Heather Matson encouraged her caucus to vote for the amendment, which they did.
“A $1 million cap is simply unfair,” Matson said. “It’s unfair to families and patients who need to be made whole. I really, truly appreciate the effort at sincere compromise. I know that this is an issue that is hard for a lot of people.”
Meyer said the $5 million cap would put Iowa “out of line” with surrounding states.
“One million dollars is a very generous hard cap for pain and suffering, which is nonquantifiable,” she said. “Like I said, there is not a dollar amount you can put on life, and I would, advise everyone to vote against this amendment.”
Matson said the bill does not address the concerns she has and she is not convinced it will solve the problems faced by healthcare providers. She expressed doubt that this bill will lower premiums, noting that states with hard caps in place have higher premiums than Iowa.
“I do believe to my core that $1 million is fundamentally unfair,” she said.
Democrat State Rep. Austin Baeth, who is an internal medicine doctor, spoke on both sides of the issue. He said doctors spend their entire career learning how to take care of people and noted it is an imperfect science. He said too many of his colleagues have had their lives upended because they’ve been called into court to defend something that may have been an accident or an error.
He also said “carpet bagger lawyers” fly in on private jets to Iowa and win verdicts like the $97 million verdict from Iowa City. He said they are a few bad apples.
But, this bill isn’t about protecting doctors.
“It sure as hell isn’t about helping insurance companies,” head added. “For me, this is looking out for patients.”
While Iowa cannot afford to lose doctors, he said it’s also important to remember that a $1 million cap leaves about $600,000 once the lawyers get their cut.
That $600,000 doesn’t get people as far as it used to, he said. Baeth said he is against the bill as it stands now as he was hoping there would be room for compromise. If the cap would increase, he said he’d be willing to listen.
In her closing comments, Meyer said there are a low number of lawsuits because many cases are settled due to juries being unpredictable.
Meyer added “bad actors” are teaching facts don’t matter, emotions matter.
“That jury has to look at the emotions of the family and I completely understand that,” Meyer said. “When my son passed away, I was angry. I was angry. But I’m a legislator. I can’t just look at one case. None of us can look at one case. we have to look at the entire state of our health care.”