Vote set on malpractice bill
The House plan to be taken up today would limit the right to sue. A Senate package is in the works.
By Ovetta Wiggins
NQUIRER HARRISBURG BUREAU
HARRISBURG - Looking for an answer to the state's medical malpractice dilemma, the House will take up a sweeping proposal today that would, among other things, restrict a patient's ability to sue and require doctors to report medical errors to a state board.
"This is not an effort to please or appease one interest group or another," said Rep. Curt Schroder (R., Chester), who has offered numerous amendments to the medical malpractice bill that will be voted on today. "This is to get to the cause of skyrocketing medical malpractice premiums."
The House plan is the result of weeks of negotiations among legislators, doctors, lawyers and hospital representatives. It also tackles restructuring the state's Medical Professional Liability Catastrophe Loss Fund (CAT Fund), seeks to improve patient safety, and offers other legal changes.
Talks continue with members of the Senate. The higher chamber plans to introduce its own package early next month.
Many of the players in the negotiations described the package as "fluid," with changes expected before a final version is sent to the governor's desk.
Last month, Gov. Schweiker called fixing the ailing medical malpractice system a priority and encouraged legislators to come up with a solution this year.
Doctors, who say high medical malpractice premiums have forced colleagues to move out of state, retire early, or scale back their practices, have been lobbying lawmakers for almost a year to enact insurance-tort revisions. They blame the high premiums on out-of-control jury awards in malpractice lawsuits in Philadelphia.
Doctors and hospital officials said yesterday that they were pleased with the legal changes that will be offered by the House. They were not so happy about the patient-safety or CAT fund proposals.
"These are absolutely essential for bringing this crisis under control," Andrew Wigglesworth, president of the Delaware Valley Health Care Council, said of the proposed changes to tort provisions. Some hospitals in Southeastern Pennsylvania narrowly averted a shutdown on Jan. 1, after some doctors feared they would not be able to obtain malpractice insurance
Under the tort-reform plan, a two-to-four-year statute of limitation would be established on filing a claim. It would impose a $250,000 "noneconomic" award limit on patients, who would be asked to sign a contract with their doctor before treatment; require awards to be paid over time, rather than in one lump sum; and mandate that lawsuits be filed in the county where the alleged malpractice occurred.
The doctors, worried about confidentiality, say they are concerned about the patient-safety proposal that calls for mandatory reporting of medical errors to a new patient-safety authority. They are also cautious about the plan to phase out the CAT fund because, they say, questions remain about the availability of insurance.
Roger F. Mecum, executive vice president of the Pennsylvania Medical Society, said the legal changes being considered by Pennsylvania legislators are modeled after California's Medical Injury Compensation Act, which has helped to keep malpractice insurance costs down.
Trial lawyers say the tort-revision proposals place the burden of solving the medical malpractice crisis on injured patients' shoulders, instead of on the shoulders of doctors, hospitals and insurance companies.
"All of the tort reform is at the victim's expense," said Mark Phenicie, legislative counsel for the Pennsylvania Trial Lawyers Association.
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