Penn. Med Mal Reform Debate Heats Up

January 30, 2002

The controversy surrounding Pennsylvania’s ongoing medical malpractice crisis increased on Tuesday as some 700 physicians, healthcare professionals and patients demonstrated in favor of tort reform at the State Capitol in Harrisburg.

Inside the building legislators who support tort reform quickly put forth proposals that their colleagues rapidly adopted, including capping “non-economic” damage awards at $250,000, lowering doctors’ coverage requirements from $1.2 million to $1 million, and allowing payments of damage awards over time.

Many doctors at the demonstration related horror stories about the liability system in Pennsylvania, which they said has resulted in the State’s having the highest medical malpractice insurance premiums in the nation, and has driven many doctors to seek positions elsewhere.

Nancy S. Roberts, MD, system chairman, Main Line Health Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology near Philadelphia, described how one of her hospitals has lost 30 percent of its ob/gyns in the last 18 months. “I’ve seen multiple physicians dragged into court along with the hospital systems so personal injury lawyers can collect on multi-million dollar awards,” Roberts stated. “One of our hospitals had 60 ob/gyns on staff. In the last 18 months, 18 of them, or 30 percent, have left the state or stopped doing obstetrics.”

On the other side of the debate were the State’s trial lawyers, who quickly attacked the legislature’s action as restricting patients’ rights and not including “any meaningful patient safety measures even though it has been one of Governor Schweiker’s priorities in addressing medical liability issues.”

Responding on behalf of the Pennsylvania Trial Lawyers Association, president Clifford A. Rieders stated, “We are extremely concerned about the language in this bill, especially during this time of persistent medical errors. Its provisions will make it far more difficult for legitimately injured victims and their families to have access to our courts; and if they are able, it is less certain that they could receive fair and full compensation for the harm done to their health.”

“The State House missed a lot of opportunities today,” Rieders continued. “They chose not to give Pennsylvanians any real protections from medical errors or doctors who repeatedly harm patients. The members of the State House also chose not to require that any savings realized by insurers be passed on to doctors by reducing medical malpractice premiums. ”

The trail lawyers also cited the potential reductions in compensation to victims if the legislation allowing for payments over time is adopted, and Rieders asserted that “no legislation should be voted on just a half-day after being introduced, without any debate or hearings.”

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