Gov. Kim Reynolds signs new medical malpractice liability limits into law

Second bill aimed at rural health care access advances in Iowa Senate

By: - February 16, 2023 5:14 pm

Gov. Kim Reynolds signed new medical malpractice liability limits into law Thursday, Feb. 16. (Photo courtesy the Office of the Governor of Iowa)

One of Gov. Kim Reynolds’ proposals to address rural health care shortages in Iowa became law Thursday while another passed out of a Senate committee.

Reynolds signed House File 161, limiting liability for doctors and hospitals from medical malpractice lawsuits. Both chambers passed the measure earlier in February.

“Today, Iowa joins the majority of U.S. states by enacting commonsense medical malpractice reform that places a reasonable cap on non-economic damages,” Reynolds said in a statement. “Protecting our health care system from out-of-control verdicts promotes access to care in communities across our state and better positions us to recruit the best and brightest physicians to Iowa.”

Iowa already places limits on noneconomic damages in medical malpractice lawsuits at $250,000 for cases in which the patient’s injury was not permanent, substantial or fatal. The new law puts caps on noneconomic damages on incidents resulting in loss or impairment of a bodily function, disfigurement or death, at $1 million for clinics and doctors and $2 million for hospitals.

Reynolds and Republican lawmakers said the caps target “nuclear verdicts,” by juries that award millions to victims in medical malpractice cases. Supporters of the bill said these awards, and the insurance costs health care providers take on to cover these lawsuits, are putting rural hospitals out of business.

All but one Democrat and 16 GOP lawmakers voted against the caps, saying it was immoral to put a limit on the value of human life. The law does not limit economic or punitive damages, nor does it apply to cases where the health care provider showed “willful and wanton disregard” for the patient’s safety and well-being.

Chris Mitchell, president and CEO of the Iowa Hospital Association, said the new law is a “positive step” toward providing access to health care for all Iowans.

“It stops the rising cost of medical liability insurance, meaning Iowa hospitals can continue to recruit top talent in the health care field while ensuring access to affordable, high-quality care for patients,” Mitchell said in a news release.

Reynolds’ plan advances without expanded birth control access

Passing liability limits was one of the priorities Reynolds outlined at the beginning of the legislative session as a strategy to address health care shortages in rural areas throughout the state. Additionally, she proposed creating two new regional Centers of Excellence to provide specialized medical services in rural and underserved communities, and establishing new OB-GYN training fellowships in her health care omnibus bill.

The Senate Health and Human Services Committee on Thursday approved Senate Study Bill 1139, which contains many of the governor’s priorities. The Senate bill does not include the over-the-counter birth control component in Reynolds’ original proposal.

House Minority Leader Jennifer Konfrst, D-Windsor Heights, said over-the-counter birth control access has won bipartisan support in the House in the past. In a Senate subcommittee meeting earlier this week, Sen. Jeff Edler, R-State Center, said the birth control provision could come up again this session. Konfrst said Democrats have not had any discussions with the governor or GOP leadership about future contraception legislation.

“The governor has opportunities to work with us on things like this, right?” Konfrst said. “She can come to us and we can have these conversations. It doesn’t have to be like this. It doesn’t have to be political.”

Abortion rights advocates oppose more money for ‘crisis pregnancy centers’

The bill also contains expanded funding for the More Options for Maternal Support (MOMS) program, increasing from $500,000 to $2 million. The money would be available to nonprofit pregnancy resource centers, also known as crisis pregnancy centers. These organizations promote alternatives to abortion. The program will also expand in scope to cover fatherhood engagement grants, to encourage fathers to stay involved in their children’s lives.

Planned Parenthood Advocates of Iowa held a press conference Wednesday where people who had received services and worked at pregnancy centers spoke against those facilities’ practices.

Ray Garbers, a transgender man, said he went to get an ultrasound and medical advice from the Bridgehaven Pregnancy Support Center in Cedar Rapids, without realizing the staff were not medical professionals or that the organization was anti-abortion.

“The person doing the ultrasound told me they were having trouble finding the pregnancy, so they basically said that I was either beginning to miscarry or I wasn’t as far along as they had initially thought,” Garbers said. “I asked if they were sure that’s all it could be and there were no other possibilities, and they reassured me multiple times and sent me home with a one-sided sheet for miscarriage precautions.”

But when Garbers went to the emergency room two days later for extreme abdominal pain, the doctors said he had an ectopic pregnancy — a fertilized egg growing outside of the uterus. Doctors performed emergency surgery on Garbers, and told him if he had come to the hospital even five minutes later, he could have died from blood loss.

“I called the anti-abortion center I went to while I was at the hospital, angry that I was misdiagnosed,” Garbers said. “I told them the baby ballooned up inside of me, almost killing me. They took no responsibility and instead shifted the blame onto me, saying they had no way of knowing that was happening.”

Garbers said these pregnancy centers should be required to tell patients their staff are not medical professionals, as well as disclosing their religious affiliations.

Democrats brought up concerns about the safety of these pregnancy centers during Thursday’s committee meeting, and said that the religiously affiliated organizations should not be promoted as legitimate health care providers.

Edler argued Iowans do not have issues with other health care providers like MercyOne or Iowa Methodist for their religious affiliations. The bill passed 8-2, with three senators absent.

“I think we can all agree, maternal options are limited in Iowa, and I hope we can get support on another bill that will be coming next week, or soon to follow, that will also help expand those opportunities for OB and birthing centers,” Edler said. “But this is one step towards providing care for rural Iowans, really taking a full approach to the family.”

The bill moves to the Senate floor.

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Robin Opsahl
Robin Opsahl

Robin Opsahl is an Iowa Capital Dispatch reporter covering the state Legislature and politics. They have experience covering government, elections and more at media organizations including Roll Call, the Sacramento Bee and the Wausau Daily Herald.