Members of the U.S. House of Representatives voted 230-194 Thursday to pass H.R. 5, a bill that could put new limits on patients’ ability to seek damages for medical malpractice.[@@]

The bill, introduced by Rep. Phil Gingrey, R-Ga., would limit awards for non-economic “pain and suffering” to $250,000. The bill also would pre-empt state laws on punitive damages, allowing state laws to prevail only when plaintiffs can show clear and convincing evidence of malicious intent.

Sens. John Ensign, R-Nev., and Judd Gregg, R-N.H, introduced the Senate version of the bill, S. 354, in February.

The House has approved similar bills in 2003 and 2004, but the bills never mustered enough support in the Senate to come up for votes there.

Senators gave H.R. 5 supporters some hope earlier this year by approving modest new limits on class-action suits.

Trial lawyers and some consumer groups say the H.R. 5 limits could hurt injured consumers, by limiting malpractice victims’ ability to seek compensation for instances of serious wrongdoing.

But the American Medical Association, Chicago, one of the groups supporting H.R. 5, says 21 states are facing a medical liability crisis that threatens physicians’ ability to practice and patients’ access to care.

Most insurance trade groups have endorsed H.R. 5, arguing that enacting the bill would increase patient access to health care by reducing the effects of lawsuits and fear of lawsuits and health care costs.

America’s Health Insurance Plans, Washington, has issued a statement welcoming House passage of H.R. 5.

“With the House passage of medical liability reform, patients are within reach of a swift and fair compensation system that discourages frivolous lawsuits and defensive medicine,” AHIP President Karen Ignagni says in the statement.