The House Judiciary Committee continues to work on H.R. 5, the medical liability reform package, today in an afternoon mark-up session. We wish them well on the effort. Liability reform will help control the rising costs of health care, and this specific piece of legislation — called the HEALTH Act — contains important protections for drugmakers and medical device manufacturers. The language reflects the understanding that drugs and devices are sold into interstate commerce, approved and regulated by the federal Food and Drug Administration, and once demonstrated as safe should not be subject to trial lawyers’ efforts to use state courts to play litigation lottery.

Section 7 of the legislation, Punitive Damages, sets guidelines on punitive damage awards in health care lawsuits, including limits so punitive damages awards do not exceed the greater of $250,000 or twice economic damages.

Manufacturers of drugs and medical devices are most interested in paragraph (c), “No Punitive Damages for Products That Comply With FDA Standards.

(1) IN GENERAL-

(A) No punitive damages may be awarded against the manufacturer or distributor of a medical product, or a supplier of any component or raw material of such medical product, based on a claim that such product caused the claimant’s harm where–

(i)(I) such medical product was subject to premarket approval, clearance, or licensure by the Food and Drug Administration with respect to the safety of the formulation or performance of the aspect of such medical product which caused the claimant’s harm or the adequacy of the packaging or labeling of such medical product; and

(II) such medical product was so approved, cleared, or licensed; or

(ii) such medical product is generally recognized among qualified experts as safe and effective pursuant to conditions established by the Food and Drug Administration and applicable Food and Drug Administration regulations, including without limitation those related to packaging and labeling, unless the Food and Drug Administration has determined that such medical product was not manufactured or distributed in substantial compliance with applicable Food and Drug Administration statutes and regulations.

Trial lawyers have long sought to bring suits against drug and device makers into state courts, seeking venues and judges that favor the plaintiffs and huge damage awards. In the 2008 decision in Riegel v. Medtronic, the U.S. Supreme Court limited such state suits against manufacturers of medical devices that had received pre-market approval from the FDA. The court ruled that Congress had specifically preempted the devices from state regulation under § 360k(a) of the Medical Device Amendments to the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act.

This decision was critical in affirming the principle of federal preemption, which provides effective protections for public health and safety. Congress has determined that the FDA is the proper authority with the available resources to regulate drugs and devices in interstate commerce.  Lawsuits in state courts in effect create a 50-state system of regulation for these devices and drugs, full of inconsistencies, capricious enforcement and unjustified damage awards. (No wonder the American Association for Justice and other trial lawyer lobbyists sought to reverse the Riegel decision last Congress with the so-called Medical Device Safety Act. Thankfully, they failed.)

The language in H.R. 5, Section 7, paragraph(c) draws on that general principle of preemption for its “safe harbor” language. It holds that companies that manufacture drugs and devices recognized as safe by the FDA have by definition gone through the careful development, testing and approval — the due diligence — that demonstrate the companies did not behave in a way to justify punitive damages. The legislation provides a measure of protection for companies so they can manufacture effective drugs and devices. It’s exactly the kind of medical liability reform that will reduce costs while ensuring a dynamic market that innovates and creates live-saving products.

UPDATE (4:50 p.m.): The House Judiciary Committee just voted 16-20 to defeat an amendment offered by Reps. Mike Quigley (D-IL) and Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-TX) to strike  Section 7. Rep. Franks (R-AZ) successfully opposed against the amendment, making a similar case as argued above.

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