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Signatures gathered for malpractice award measure

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) -- Lawyers and consumer groups have started gathering signatures for a ballot measure to increase the $250,000 limit on some damages, including pain and suffering, in medical malpractice suits.

Backers of the initiative say limiting certain damages can deny victims fair compensation for grisly medical mistakes, the Los Angeles Times (http://lat.ms/1bLAsjo ) reported Tuesday.

However, insurance companies, doctors and other health care providers contend the restrictions help control costs and maintain the availability of care. Opponents already have raised $33 million to fight the proposed measure.

Supporters, meanwhile, have raised $1.7 million, mostly from law firms and individual attorneys, as well as the advocacy group Consumer Watchdog. They have until March 24 to submit enough signatures to place the proposal on the fall ballot.

The state's current Medical Injury Compensation Reform Act was crafted in 1975, when Gov. Jerry Brown convened a special legislative session to address skyrocketing liability insurance costs that fueled concerns that doctors would leave the state.

Under the law, patients who sue for malpractice can recover no more than $250,000 for noneconomic damages such as pain and suffering. The law also limits attorneys fees based on damages. There is no cap on economic damages such as compensation for medical bills or lost wages.

The proposed measure would adjust the pain-and-suffering cap to account for inflation to about $1.1 million, various analyses show. The cap would also be indexed to future inflation rates.

The proposal also would require hospitals to randomly test doctors for drug use and require physicians to check a statewide prescription drug database before prescribing certain medications to cut down on abuse.

So far, California's political leaders have mostly avoided debate on the measure. Brown has made few public comments about the push to alter the law that he signed during his first term as governor.

State Senate leader Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, has said he's looking into possible legislation that could avert a nasty ballot fight.

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Information from: Los Angeles Times, http://www.latimes.com

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