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Program to admit medical mistakes, limit lawsuits gains steam


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WASHINGTON - Two high-profile Democrats introduced legislation Wednesday that they said would provide "common ground" on medical malpractice suits, a divisive issue that has pitted doctors against lawyers in a long-running partisan stalemate.

Sens. Barack Obama, D-Ill., and Hillary Rodham Clinton, D- N.Y., said their bill would help reduce medical errors, unnecessary litigation, and skyrocketing insurance premiums with a simple approach: encouraging doctors and hospitals to apologize for medical mistakes.

Modeled after an Illinois pilot program called "Sorry Works," the bill would provide liability protection for doctors who quickly disclose medical errors and enter into negotiations with injured patients or their families for compensation.

"The debate in Washington has centered on caps and lawsuits," leading to permanent political gridlock, said Obama. This bill "will help us all find some common ground."

"... Instead of closing ranks and keeping people in the dark," Obama said, the bill will encourage doctors and hospitals to be up front with patients when errors occur. As a result, patients would be less likely to sue and health care professionals would be better able to learn from their mistakes.

The Illinois program was recently enacted by that state's legislature as part of the broader medical malpractice bill signed into law last month by Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

Congress has been struggling with the issue for years. Republicans have generally favored caps on damage awards - a proposal favored by doctors but anathema to trial lawyers and their Democratic supporters.

The resulting logjam, said Clinton, has contributed to a dysfunctional health care system.

"We have 98,000 people dying (each year from medical errors), doctors under the gun, hospitals practicing defensive medicine," she said. "Something has to give."

Doug Wojcieszak, founder of the Sorry Works! Coalition, said the bill would spark fresh debate about the long-simmering problem.

"This really has potential" to change the discussion, he said. "It's anger, not greed" that drives people to sue, he said, so an apology - as simple as it sounds - can change the dynamic.

He and others noted that the approach has decreased litigation and insurance costs in Michigan, Kentucky and elsewhere.

Rick Boothman, the chief risk officer at the University of Michigan Health System, said his school has seen its litigation caseload cut in half and realized savings of more than $2 million since instituting a Sorry Works-type program.

"Defensiveness guarantees that these things get handled in court," said Boothman.

The bill's prospects are unclear. There is no House companion to the legislation, and Obama and Clinton said they were just starting to look for Republican co-sponsors in the Senate.

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(c) 2005, St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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