HOYER GRILLED ON HEALTH

THE BALTIMORE SUN

CLARIFICATION: During a Sept. 1 town hall meeting about health care, Rep. Steny H. Hoyer said that Congress would look "very seriously" at curbing medical malpractice lawsuits in order to "prevent specious suits," and pointed out that states have addressed the issue by adopting a "cap" on pain and suffering awards, but he did not specifically say that health care legislation now under consideration would include such caps.

The Baltimore Sun regrets the error.

WALDORF - -House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer said Tuesday night that Congress is likely to consider caps on medical lawsuits as part of its health care overhaul deliberations, but stopped short of assuring his Southern Maryland constituents that he would push for changes in malpractice awards.

At a town hall meeting that in its often angry tone and hostile questioning echoed dozens around the country over the past month, the No. 2 Democrat in the House of Representatives was repeatedly pressed about tort reform.

"You kind of glossed over this before," Dr. Michael Magee, an orthopedist from Edgewater, said after Hoyer told another questioner that he "certainly" expected the issue to be considered.

Hoyer, a leading recipient of campaign contributions from lawyers and law firms, said he is concerned about excessive jury awards in malpractice suits. But he also said that if noneconomic damages are capped, some victims of medical malpractice "may not get anything of substantial value through the years."

"I intend to look at this very seriously and discuss it with my colleagues," Hoyer said. "We do want to prevent specious suits. I think we can all agree on that."

Trial lawyers are among the most powerful Democratic interest groups, and conservative opponents of President Barack Obama's health care overhaul have zeroed in on the fact that none of the Democratic proposals in Congress contain provisions on tort reform. Obama told the American Medical Association in June that he is not advocating a cap on malpractice awards.

Some independent analysts have said that provisions that would protect doctors from excessive malpractice awards might be part of a compromise deal, but it is not clear that the savings would be as great as proponents of tort reform have suggested.

Hoyer, who controls the flow of legislation on the House floor, said he expected Congress to be wrestling with health care for eight to 10 weeks after lawmakers return to work next week from summer recess.

A capacity crowd of 1,700, many of whom waited hours to get in, filled the gym at North Point High School in Waldorf. The crowd at the two-hour town hall was by far the largest of his career, said Hoyer, now in his 29th year in the House.

"What a wonderful celebration of democracy," he said, before the event turned increasingly cacophonous, particularly after the congressman devoted nearly half the allotted time to promoting the Democratic plan, rather than to answering audience questions.

Under Democratic health proposals, "we keep what works and fix what doesn't," Hoyer said. "If you've got it, you like it, you keep it."

He said the Democrats want "a more efficient Medicare, with stronger benefits," while cutting the Medicare Advantage program that Democrats call a needless and unfair subsidy to private insurers. About one in five Medicare patients is covered by the program.

Hoyer outlined elements of a health care deal that have received substantial support from lawmakers in both parties and are likely to be part of any final overhaul. They include: requiring all Americans to purchase health insurance; making the insurance "portable," so individuals can keep their coverage if they lose or leave their job; and requiring insurance carriers to cover those with existing medical conditions.

Congress is also expected to provide subsidies that would help the poor and those from moderate-income families pay for health insurance.

Hoyer also sought to puncture what he described as myths about the Democratic plan, such as claims that illegal immigrants would be given health insurance. They are not included in the legislative proposals, but that did not stop several skeptical questioners from challenging Hoyer on that point.

Hoyer asserted that the Democratic proposal would not ration care. However, independent analysts have concluded that medical care would continue to be rationed - insurance companies do it now - and Obama has acknowledged that it would not be possible to devise a system that would allow individuals to get care from any doctor in the world, regardless of the cost.

Maryland families will continue to face skyrocketing insurance premiums if nothing is done, Hoyer said. The average family would see its health care premiums more than double by 2016, from $12,600 now to nearly $25,000 a year, he said.

Though the calendar read September and fresh, fall-like temperatures had replaced summer's heat, the spirit of the town halls of the August recess was very much in evidence. A vocal minority jeered derisively at Hoyer's answers and shouted their disapproval of efforts to change the health care system.

"We want the government out of our business," April Burke of Mechanicsville told the congressman, prompting the first of many standing ovations by opponents.

Perhaps the loudest applause from those opposed to the Democratic proposals came with the now-familiar challenge that members of Congress would not be participating in the system they want to create.

"Every member of Congress will have exactly the same choice that you have," Hoyer replied.

There were repeated questions related to coverage of illegal immigrants in the plan. Hoyer said illegal immigrants were specifically excluded by the main House Democratic proposal but acknowledged that, under a 1986 law, public hospitals are not allowed to turn away anyone seeking care and may not inquire about citizenship in treating them.

Hoyer was greeted by a mixture of cheers and boos when he arrived at the school gym. Democratic organizers did a better job than at earlier town halls in Maryland in getting their supporters in line early, but opponents were very much in evidence.

Ground rules for the meeting included a polite request that members of the audience "not interrupt, yell or use profanity."

But when Hoyer tried to debunk the false claim that legislation being considered by the House would create "death panels," there was a smattering of applause, followed by a wall of boos and now familiar shouts of "Read the bill!"

"I have read the bill," the congressman said.

In a recent interview, Hoyer emphasized that the House would not be voting on the 1,017-page measure that has become the object of intense criticism since its approval by several committees in late July. Instead, a separate proposal - containing elements of the legislation that has been working its way through the House, is likely to come up for a vote late this month.

Several health care measures are under consideration in Congress, and Obama is being urged to lay out his own legislative priorities.

Among the provisions that many Democrats support - but that appear to be in jeopardy as the Obama administration and party leaders try to craft a plan that can become law - is the creation of a "public option," a government-run insurance plan that would compete with private insurers.

The cost of the plan - currently in the range of $1 trillion over 10 years - might have to be reduced in order to gain the votes of moderate-to-conservative Democrats in the House and the Senate. Already, House liberals have shaved the cost of their main proposal in response to opposition from Blue Dog centrists by making it slightly less generous to lower-income Americans.

Hoyer is the highest-ranking representative to hold a town hall-style meeting on health care during Congress' summer vacation. The crowd in Charles County last night was more than three times as large as those at Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin's town hall meetings last month.

Americans are split over whether the protesters at town hall meetings reflect the opinions of the public as a whole, according to a new CBS News poll released Tuesday. But that national opinion survey and others have shown declining support for Democratic overhaul plans in recent months.

According to the CBS poll, completed Monday, most Americans surveyed say they are confused by the health care debate and that support for a government-run insurance plan has dropped sharply since June.

Fewer than one in three of those surveyed said they understood the health care proposals being discussed in Washington. And a clear majority of Americans said Obama has not clearly explained his plans for reshaping the medical system.

In fact, Obama has not proposed a plan and Congress is debating a number of different proposals.

If both houses of Congress approve their competing measures, a House-Senate conference committee would then have to come up with a compromise that would go back to each chamber for a final vote.

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