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Consumers seek to raise California cap on malpractice awards

By Sharon Bernstein

SACRAMENTO, California (Reuters) - Consumer advocates in California said on Monday they had gathered enough signatures to place an initiative on the November ballot that would raise a decades-old state cap on medical malpractice awards to $1.1 million.

The proposed initiative, backed by trial lawyers and the Santa Monica-based Consumer Watchdog, would more than quadruple the amount of money a patient could be awarded for pain and suffering in a malpractice case - currently capped at $250,000.

Consumer Watchdog president Jamie Court said he began submitting the signatures late Monday afternoon, after waiting to see if a legislative compromise that fell apart last week would be resurrected before an early evening deadline to submit the signatures for a ballot initiative.

"We are waiting at the behest of legislative leaders to go forth and put these signatures in across the state," Court told Reuters earlier in the day in a telephone interview, adding that backers of the measure had collected 840,000 signatures to get it on the ballot, far more than the nearly 505,000 required under state law.

In addition to raising the cap on pain-and-suffering awards, the initiative would require random drug testing of doctors in the wake of growing concern about over-prescription of addictive pain medications, including among doctors, Court said.

"This is a landmark patient safety measure," Court said. "By the end of the day the voters will have a chance to enact some of the strongest patient safety measures in the nation."

Representatives of patients have tried for at least 20 years to persuade the state to raise the limit on pain-and-suffering awards, which was set in the 1970s and is not indexed to inflation. Opposition from the California Medical Association and other representatives of doctors have made such changes difficult to enact.

"A ballot measure that is certain to generate more medical lawsuits and drive up costs for every health consumer in California is the worst possible idea at the worst possible time," California Medical Association President Richard Thorp said in a statement.

Hoping to avoid a costly and ugly battle between doctors and lawyers over the ballot initiative, state senate Democratic leader Darrell Steinberg last month introduced a bill saying it was the legislature's intent to bring both sides to the table and try to reach a compromise.

Last week, sources close to the negotiations said, representatives of doctors and lawyers were close to agreeing on a deal proposed by Steinberg to raise the limit under the Medical Injury Compensation Reform Act, or MICRA, to $500,000.

The talks fell apart on Friday, the sources said, leading to a decision by Consumer Watchdog and Consumer Attorneys of California, the state trial lawyers association, to file the signatures by the end of the day on Monday if the legislature did not act.

"My suggested compromise was to raise the MICRA cap on damages due to medical malpractice from $250,000 to $500,000," Steinberg said in a statement emailed to Reuters on Monday.

"A cap of $500,000 is far below the rate of inflation since MICRA became law 39 years ago," Steinberg said. "That number is a reasonable compromise that fairly compensates injured patients without significant increases in medical costs."

(Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Ken Wills)

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