In a battle between doctors and lawyers the doctors have the upper hand – if you’re keeping score by counting campaign contributions.

A proposed initiative to change the non-economic damages cap under the Medical Injury Compensation Reform Act (MICRA) while also requiring drug and alcohol testing for doctors is in the process of gathering signatures for a ballot try. Both sides in the fight reported their year-end financial status. While the proponents raised $1.2 million up until the end of last year with $374,000 in the bank, the opponents say they are sitting on $31 million dollars, much in loans.

Lawyers have teamed up with the Consumer Watchdog organization to push the initiative. The lawyers main goal is to lift the cap on jury awards for non-economic damages in malpractice cases from $250,000 to over $1 million, then adjust for inflation. The cap was signed into law by Governor Jerry Brown in 1975 with a goal to lower medical liability insurance premiums and thus lower the cost of health care.

Doctors and insurance companies oppose the changes proposed by the measure.

So far, the campaign on behalf of the initiative has emphasized the testing of doctors. A billboard was posted in Oakland offering a phone number for reporting doctors who might be using drugs and alcohol. Online video ads have focused on the same issue.

This approach is driven by polling that tells proponents that highlighting the misuse of drugs or alcohol by doctors is a better selling tool than talking about lifting the MICRA cap. As Dan Walters commented in November, “A measure that would repeal or raise the cap or index it to inflation would face tough sledding with voters as medical providers and insurers spend millions to depict it as a lawyer money grab. Hence the other verbiage about druggie docs.”

A consultant for the measure’s proponents told the Los Angeles Times that the loans put up by the proponents is a trick because loans can be withdrawn, indicating that all that money may not be there if the initiative battle commences.

Proponents shouldn’t count on that hope.

The initiative title and summary received from the attorney general was friendly to the proponents. It led with the drug and alcohol testing piece. Both the opponents of the measure and members of the media criticized the title and summary as unfair. To overcome that advantage will take money, the kind of money the doctors and insurance companies are now setting aside. If the initiative qualifies, those monies in the campaign kitty will be spent.

It is not an unwise decision to make commitments as loans to the campaign at this juncture. There is a chance the measure will not qualify. Consumer Watchdog will have to weigh its capabilities of dealing with not one but two measures on the 2014 ballot. The group already qualified a proposal to give the Insurance Commissioner the authority to challenge health insurance increases.

However, Consumer Watchdog has overseen nearly a million spent on initiative gatherers to get the MICRA change on the ballot. Both sides are serious. This fight between doctors vs. lawyers likely will become a reality.