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House Continues its Anti-Consumer Crusade, Attacking Patients’ Rights

To call the timing coincidental doesn’t give House Republicans enough credit. Tomorrow, while the fallout from Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ testimony about his connections to Russia dominates most Capitol Hill news coverage, the House will vote on H.R. 1215, a bill designed to strip injured patients of their day in court. Last week, the same legislators voted to undermine the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau under the cover of James Comey’s testimony about President Trump’s ham-fisted attempts to interfere in the FBI’s Russia investigations.

Russia is not the story here. A foreign government’s interference in our elections is certainly a scintillating and important topic, but in the time it takes our many investigators to sort it all out, patients and consumers in the U.S. stand to lose protections just as fundamental to our self-determination as a secure, trustworthy voting system that’s free from nefarious interference or unconstitutional restrictions on participation.

H.R. 1215, the “Protecting Access to Care Act,” is a cynical attempt at changing the rules of the game when patients are injured. Federal laws have typically set a floor for medical malpractice litigation – that is, minimum protections for patients that ensure people who suffer injuries get their day in court regardless of ethnicity, age, gender, or class. But H.R. 1215 turns that system on its head, setting ceilings instead. And they’re low ceilings. They’ll do more to protect insurance companies than they will to protect patients. CPR Member Scholars Thomas McGarity, Sidney Shapiro, and Rena Steinzor identified some particular concerns with the legislation in a letter to members of Congress.

The chief concerns are:

  • Its broad scope, which puts limits not just on medical malpractice lawsuits, but also on pharmaceutical and medical device litigation (i.e. product liability law), nursing home abuse and neglect, and even intentional torts like sexual assault.  
  • A sleight of hand in legislative drafting that would preempt state constitutions that prohibit caps on damages, state legislatures’ decisions not to cap damages, and other aspects of the civil justice system traditionally left to the states.

Tomorrow’s vote on H.R. 1215 comes on the heels of last week’s party-line vote to pass H.R. 10, known to consumer advocates as the “Wrong CHOICE Act.” That legislation would decimate the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau by eliminating its independent agency status, cutting into its funding, and wiping out its enforcement and oversight tools. CFPB’s record of success in its short life includes recovering nearly $12 billion for over 29 million consumers. Not to put too fine a point on it, but CFPB’s record is especially remarkable when you consider how strong its advocacy has been in pursuit of racial justice. A couple of highlights, courtesy of Americans for Financial Reform:

  • CFPB has proposed the first nationwide rules (moving toward completion in 2017) against payday, car-title, and installment loans that suck people into unmanageable debt. Because of the payday lending industry’s long record of targeting communities of color, Latino and African American borrowers have been especially likely to wind up with triple-digit-interest loans that are engineered to fail.  
  • CFPB resolved the largest redlining case in history against Hudson City Savings, which will pay nearly $33 million in direct loan subsidies, funding for community programs and outreach, and a civil penalty for structuring its business to avoid (and discourage mortgage access for) residents of majority black and Hispanic neighborhoods in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania.

The House voted last week to make these kinds of activities more difficult for CFPB. Tomorrow, members will decide whether injured patients deserve justice and compensation. In both cases, the interests of vulnerable people with limited political clout are coming up against powerful, politically connected corporate special interests. It’s not hard to imagine which way this is going.

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