Vote Explanation for H.R. 1215 — Protecting Access to Care Act of 2017

I voted against H.R. 1215, the Protecting Access to Care Act of 2017, which overhauls the medical liability system for cases related to federally subsidized health care. Contrary to what the name of this bill claims to do, H.R. 1215 would undermine patient protections and add significant barriers for victims of medical malpractice seeking justice in court.

A study by researchers at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine found that medical errors are the third leading cause of death in the United States, with over 250,000 American deaths each year. These medical mistakes range from surgical errors to medical device malfunctions and incorrect medication prescriptions.

The authority to determine medical liability law has rested with the states for over two centuries. This autonomy to regulate medical malpractice actions and decisions is an important component of our nation’s judicial system, as it allows state courts to determine appropriate damages caps. In fact, 18 states have constitutional provisions that prohibit limiting damages in wrongful death cases. Some of these states have even had their supreme courts strike down legislatively enacted damages caps as unconstitutional.

As written, this legislation sets the medical malpractice award for non-economic damages, such as compensation for pain or suffering, at $250,000, which was first set in a California law in 1976. This would negatively impact victims of medical malpractice In Massachusetts, where the cap for non-economic damages is $500,000.

H.R. 1215 would set limits on lawyers’ contingency fees, and would authorize periodic payments, rather than lump-sum awards, for damages owed. Additionally, it would impose a three-year maximum statute of limitations on filing medical malpractice lawsuits. Lastly, the bill provides unjustified immunity in product liability cases for health care providers who dispense defective or dangerous pharmaceuticals or medical devices.

While I support reforms to the civil justice system, this legislation would set a federal, one-size-fits-all approach to judicial determinations that have historically been left to the states. I also worry that the damages cap and other barriers to justice established by the bill would be particularly harmful for our most vulnerable. For these reasons, I did not support H.R. 1215, which narrowly passed the House, 218–210.