Pennsylvania Senate passes malpractice bill

  1. Posted on Wed, Feb. 13, 2002

    Yet, doctors and hospitals blasted the legislation, saying it gutted the House version. The discord could cause delays.
    By Ovetta Wiggins and Josh Goldstein
    Inquirer Staff Writers

    HARRISBURG - The Pennsylvania state Senate yesterday overwhelmingly approved a medical-malpractice bill after weeks of negotiations and some last-minute criticism by doctors and hospitals who blasted the legislation as a failure before senators even voted.
    Despite the criticism, last evening, with no debate, the Senate passed the bill, 42-6.

    Senate leaders hoped to have a bill ready for Gov. Schweiker's signature this week, but it is unclear whether the medical groups' objections will block final approval of the legislation.

    The bill contains provisions to improve patient safety and to reduce medical errors, as well as legal changes to the state's malpractice system.

    Patients' access to quality health care is in danger, doctors and hospitals say, because rising malpractice premiums have caused some doctors to retire early, scale back their practice, or leave the state.

    The Senate bill was crafted during six weeks of negotiations among doctors, hospitals, insurers and trial lawyers under the auspices of Senate Majority Leader David "Chip" Brightbill (R., Lebanon).

    On Monday night, the Pennsylvania Medical Society walked away from the talks.

    And yesterday, medical society president Howard Richter sent a memo to senators saying that the doctors were "unable to support a package that does not provide meaningful tort reform."

    The doctors want provisions that would include limiting damages for pain and suffering and shortening the statute of limitations in malpractice cases. The Senate bill contains neither.

    "We cannot support the package that has emerged," said Andrew Wigglesworth, president of the Delaware Valley Health Care Association, which represents hospitals in the Philadelphia area. "It does not provide sufficient immediate economic relief for either hospitals or physicians."

    Some senators privately expressed frustration yesterday at what they viewed as eleventh-hour maneuvering by the medical community, especially since it had been demanding legislative action on malpractice insurance for more than a year.

    "We expect this package to save doctors 10 to 20 percent on the malpractice rates," said Erik Arneson, Sen. Brightbill's chief of staff. "It represents a huge step forward in terms of patient safety, tort reform, and reform of the medical CAT fund," the state's Medical Professional Liability Catastrophe Loss Fund.

    Cliff Rieders, president of the Pennsylvania Trial Lawyers Association, criticized the doctors for walking away at the last minute after both sides had negotiated concessions.

    "They apparently want everything or they want nothing," Rieders said of the doctors. The lawyers' group "agreed to the bill despite serious reservations about the impact on the catastrophically injured patients."

    The House approved a bill last month that placed a limit on pain-and-suffering awards, required that malpractice suits be brought in the county where the alleged negligence occurred, provided that awards to be paid out over time instead of in a lump sum, and imposed a shorter statute of limitations for filing claims.

    At the time, it was widely understood that the Senate version of the bill would contain many changes to reflect the ongoing negotiations. Now it is unclear whether the House will accept the Senate bill.

    The House could force a House-Senate conference committee to craft a compromise bill or it could vote to not concur on the Senate bill. If either happens, malpractice legislation could be delayed for weeks.

    The House is expected to take up the legislation today.

    In his memo, the medical society's Richter said the Senate bill would not result in cost reductions for doctors struggling with malpractice premiums that doubled or tripled in two years.

    "The reforms we fought so hard for in [the House bill] were gutted," Richter wrote.

    After yesterday's vote, he issued a statement that said: "Unfortunately, the Senate [bill], in its present form, does not provide sufficient cost savings, and we oppose it."

    Arneson said the state Supreme Court would rule such a limit unconstitutional and would possibly scuttle the entire bill.

    He said the Senate decided to form a commission including a representative of the Supreme Court to study "venue," the rules about where cases are tried.

    The Senate bill would create a patient-safety authority to analyze reports of medical errors and make recommendations on changes hospitals should make to prevent such mistakes.

    The bill would increase the ability of the state Medical Licensure Board to identify and discipline bad doctors.

    For the next decade, $40 million a year would be sent to the medical CAT Fund from a separate state insurance fund to help lower the malpractice costs for doctors. The $1.2 million mandatory coverage doctors carry would be reduced to $1 million.

    Claims for future medical expenses of more than $100,000 would be paid over time rather than in a lump sum. Patients would not be able to collect damages on medical expenses already covered by health insurance policies. And new standards would be established for medical experts before they could testify in malpractice cases.
    Ovetta Wiggins' e-mail address is
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