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$1 million cap on medical malpractice non-economic damages advances in Iowa Senate

Med student mikayla brockmeyer speaks to an Iowa senate subcommittee
Katarina Sostaric
/
IPR
Medical student Mikayla Brockmeyer spoke in support of a cap on medical malpractice lawsuit payouts Wednesday at the Iowa Capitol.

Senate Republicans advanced a bill Wednesday that would prevent juries from awarding more than $1 million in non-economic damages to victims of medical malpractice, except when there is “actual malice.”

Medical providers support the bill, which is one of Gov. Kim Reynolds’ priorities, because they say the lack of such a limit is a major factor in Iowa’s health care workforce shortage. Opponents, who include trial lawyers, say the bill would deny justice to Iowans when medical malpractice causes severe injury or death.

Mikayla Brockmeyer, a third-year medical student at Des Moines University, said many of her classmates are planning to leave Iowa. And she said she has family and friends affected by a lack of health care access in rural communities.

“We need medical liability reform now, and don’t let this slip away along with the doctors in training who are considering other opportunities in other states,” Brockmeyer said. “This is more than a competition. This is something to retain the physicians of Iowa for years and years to come.”

Former Trump administration official Sam Clovis has an active lawsuit against a group of western Iowa medical providers, alleging their negligence left him paralyzed from the chest down. He criticized Republican lawmakers for trying to limit jury awards in cases like his.

“They say they protect life, and then they turn right around and try to assign a value to that,” Clovis said. “That, frankly, is wrong. And it’s immoral.”

Clovis supported medical liability limits when he ran in the GOP Senate primary in 2014.

In 2017, the Iowa Legislature established a $250,000 cap on non-economic damages like pain and suffering, unless “the jury determines that there is a substantial or permanent loss or impairment of a bodily function, substantial disfigurement, or death” that warrants more money.

Representatives for hospitals and health care providers said that “soft cap” is not working. They said insurance rates for health care facilities are too high, and doctors don’t want to stay in Iowa because of the threat of huge jury verdicts.

Supporters of the bill point to a verdict from last year, in which a jury awarded $97.4 million to the family of a baby whose brain was severely damaged during birth. It’s believed to be the largest medical malpractice verdict in the history of the state.

More than half of that money was for economic damages, which would not be limited by the bill advancing in the Senate. The boy is expected to need 24-hour care for the rest of his life. The medical clinic has since filed for bankruptcy.

Dr. Shannon Leveridge, an obstetrician from Davenport, said the community lost 10 of its 28 outpatient OB prenatal providers in the past year. She said maternal health care is “particularly fraught” with medical malpractice lawsuit concerns.

“I just cannot overstate how much this is affecting our workforce,” Leveridge said. “And that turns into effects for the women and the children, the babies in our state.”

Opponents of the bill said very few medical malpractice cases actually go to trial each year, and that there is already a rigorous process for plaintiffs to get to that point. They said there’s been a decrease in such cases over the past decade, and that the concerns about Iowa’s insurance rates compared to other states are overblown.

Tom Slater, a lawyer from West Des Moines, said he’s a conservative Republican, but he disagrees with the bill.

“Where’s the profoundly injured patient left?” Slater asked. “This is the kind of bill that…puts the finishing touches on not just curtailing patient rights, but totally eliminating them.”

The Senate Judiciary Committee advanced the bill 11-7 on Wednesday afternoon, with Republicans supporting it and Democrats opposing it. They amended the bill to increase the $1 million cap by 2.1% each year starting in 2028.

House Republicans are planning to consider the same bill.

Katarina Sostaric is IPR's State Government Reporter