WASHINGTON (Legal Newsline)- A U.S. Senate panel is considering proposals aimed at decreasing the number of medical malpractice lawsuits filed in already bogged down courts.
Observers say changes to the way medical malpractice cases are handled could be a part of the national health care overhaul sought by President Barack Obama.
However, the idea of having special courts with specially trained judges to hear medical malpractice cases could be a sticking point for the nation's trial lawyers, who have said legal reforms are not needed -- but rather a reduction in medical errors -- to help bring down health care costs.
Members of the Senate Finance Committee are looking at the possibility of special courts as well as some degree of liability protection for doctors who follow best practices in treating their patients.
The Associated Press reported Friday that the American Association for Justice, formerly known as the Association of Trial Lawyers of America, is opposed to the idea of medically-trained jurists hearing malpractice cases.
"We don't think that doctors and hospitals need special courts," AAJ chief lobbyist Linda Lipsen was quoted as saying. "It's a slippery slope. First you have a court for doctors, and then what? A court for plumbers?"
In his speech Wednesday on health care to a joint session of Congress, Obama indicated that he supported legal reforms as a part of his health care initiative.
"Now, I don't believe malpractice reform is a silver bullet, but I've talked to enough doctors to know that defensive medicine may be contributing to unnecessary costs," Obama said. "So I'm proposing that we move forward on a range of ideas about how to put patient safety first and let doctors focus on practicing medicine."
Obama's choice to head up his effort at using legal reforms to reduce health care costs has raised some eyebrows. The president tapped U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius, former lobbyist and executive director of the Kansas Trial Lawyers' Association.
Former Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean, a physician, said at a recent event that Democrats are unlikely to support legal reforms as a way to drive down health care costs.
"The reason that tort reform is not in the bill is because the people who wrote it did not want to take on the trial lawyers in addition to everybody else they were taking on. And that is the plain and simple truth," he said at a town hall event with Rep. Jim Moran, D-Va.