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Consumer Watchdog submitted more than 800,000 signatures Monday for a ballot measure that would modify the state's $250,000 cap on pain and suffering injuries in medical malpractice cases, touching off what promises to be a fierce battle with medical providers and their insurers.

The cap (known as MICRA) was signed by Gov. Jerry Brown in 1975, during the first year of his first governorship, and has been the subject of political maneuvering ever since between the medical industry and Consumer Attorneys of California, whose members file and pursue personal injury cases.

Most recently, with signatures being collected for the measure, Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg has been trying to work out a legislative compromise on the long-burning issue, but that effort apparently failed. And once the 830,000 signatures were submitted, the measure, if qualified, could not be removed from the November ballot.

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

"If one side says no, it's a terrible missed opportunity. An initiative battle is costly and uncertain, and will damage the reputation of two fine professions. This issue cries out for a legislative solution, and what I'm offering is a conservative increase that's fair to injured patients as well as the medical and legal communities."

Consumer Watchdog, a Southern California organization that has long been allied with the trial lawyers, submitted the petitions in Los Angeles and staged a news conference at which families of malpractice victims decried the limit. One was Robert Pack, a Bay Area businessman whose two children were run over and killed by a driver who had been overprescribed with drugs by doctors.

Pack, who is the out-front spokesman for the measure, said not only should the cap be lifted as a deterrent to malpractice but the proposal's other provisions, requiring drug testing of doctors and compelling them to check a registry of drug addicts to curb over-prescription of drugs, are needed to stop what was called a "patient safety crisis."

The medical and insurance industries have been gearing up to oppose the Consumer Watchdog-Pack measure and say they are ready to spend more than $30 million on a campaign against it. They contend that the cap has held down malpractice insurance rates, which also hold down medical costs, and that the drug-testing provisions of the measure are unneeded and mask a measure that would put more money in the pockets of lawyers.

Update: Amended at 11:50 to include Steinberg statement.

PHOTO: A West Sacramento billboard highlights the looming ballot fight to overturn the state law capping pain-and-suffering damages in medical negligence cases. Photo courtesy of Consumer Watchdog.



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