By Christopher Cadelago

A decades-long fight among powerful California interests is finally coming before voters, as proponents of a push to increase the sum victims can recover in medical malpractice lawsuits announced Thursday that they've qualified an initiative for the November ballot.

Supporters, including Consumer Watchdog, want to raise the $250,000 cap on pain and suffering damages in malpractice cases. They argue the amount is inadequate to cover the cost of physician negligence, and contend the current ceiling deters lawyers from accepting malpractice cases.

The initiative, the fifth to qualify for the fall ballot, would increase the limit on pain and suffering damages to about $1.1 million as well as peg it to inflation. The initiative's proponent is Robert S. Pack.

Several efforts to raise the limit -- enacted by the Medical Injury Compensation Reform Act in 1975 -- have stalled in the state Capitol. Now the initiative -- combined with another ballot measure that would give the state's elected insurance commissioner the power to reject health insurance rate increases -- is expected to produce a costly battle pitting lawyers against doctors, hospitals and insurance companies.

The coalition of opponents, including the California Medical Association, California Hospital Association and California Chamber of Commerce, argues the measure would increase the number of medical lawsuits and the cost of health care across the board.

"We always knew this flawed measure was bad for the pocketbooks of everyday Californians, but the more they read the fine print, the more they realize it's equally bad for their personal privacy," said Jim DeBoo, the campaign manager for the group of doctors, hospitals and business and labor groups.

The measure also would mandate random drug and alcohol testing of doctors and would require that physicians check the state's prescription drug database before prescribing drugs to curb abuse.

"The patient safety protections in this ballot measure will save lives and protect families from dangerous, impaired and drug dealing doctors," Pack, whose two young children were killed by an impaired driver, said in a prepared statement. "Today, California voters have taken the first step in making sure that more families like mine don't have to experience the pain of losing a child due to dangerous medicine.

"No family should suffer because a doctor recklessly prescribes pills to an addict, is a substance abuser, or commits repeated acts of medical negligence," Pack said.

As of March 31, proponents' main campaign committee -- "Your Neighbors for Patient Safety" -- had $42,378 cash on hand. It had spent $2.1 million, including $1.6 million on petition circulating, according to a state filing.

The measure's opponents have more money at the ready. The main campaign committee, "Patients, Providers and Healthcare Insurers To Protect Access and Contain Health Costs," had $31.9 million on hand March 31, according to its filing.

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