Conn. Med-Mal Prescription Still Uncertain

April 26, 2005

Dealing with the thorny issue of how to ease doctors’ rising medical malpractice insurance rates, Connecticut lawmakers have managed this year to whittle dozens of proposals down to two.

The work isn’t finished yet.

Lawmakers, doctors and lawyers are planning meetings in the coming days to sift through the two hefty bills. House Speaker James Amann, D-Milford, said earlier this week that he was hopeful a compromise plan would be ready for debate on the House floor within two weeks.

“We have to just roll up our sleeves and hopefully try to put together some kind of compromise,” Amann said. “The governor and this Democratic caucus know if we don’t have a medical malpractice bill this year, it’s going to be a real black eye for the session.”

Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell put out a proposal earlier this year that took one of the perennial sticking points — monetary limits on damages for pain and suffering — off the table. Lawmakers and others are now tinkering with a variety of other ideas to bring down rates.

Under a bill approved by the Judiciary Committee earlier this month, plaintiffs would be required to get a medical opinion supporting the grounds for their complaint. The interest rate on settlements paid over time would also be reduced from 12 percent to 8 percent, and hospitals would have to follow procedures to keep patients safe.

This week, the Public Health Committee approved a bill that would require mandatory mediation for complaints and give the state’s insurance commissioner prior approval for any rate increases. It also would reduce interest rates and require a signed medical opinion.

But lawmakers don’t seem to yet know all the areas where the proposals are similar and different. At the Public Health Committee meeting Monday, lawmakers asked for information but couldn’t get it right away. Sen. George Gunther, R-Stratford, was frustrated.

“I’d rather have it worked on now instead of the last week in May or the first week in June and sit down and start slobbering around with it then,” said Gunther, the only committee member to vote against the bill.

Rick Newman, president of the Connecticut Trial Lawyers Association, said he would like to see the proposals focus less on the legal system, and more on the insurers.

“I don’t want to go thorough some change, some exercise, that three years from now we’re scratching our heads and saying, so now what?” he said. “This is an insurance problem, not a court problem. The reason we just don’t shut up and go away is because we want to make sure we’re doing something meaningful.”

Insurers and doctors have been arguing that caps on awards for pain and emotional distress are essential to curb rising insurance rates.

But earlier this month, the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen said the number of medical malpractice payments nationwide actually dropped 14 percent from 2001 to 2004, and the amount of the payments declined during the same period from $4.4 billion to $4.2 billion. The group suggested that insurers may be using the higher rates to pad their bottom lines.

Medical industry officials took issue with Public Citizen’s report, saying information came from a flawed national databank.

Ken Ferrucci, director of legislative affairs for the Connecticut State Medical Society, said he would like to see the state legislation do more to reduce premiums and stabilize the market. An amendment that would have let physicians band together to negotiate rates was defeated in committee.

“If there’s some significant change, we’re hoping it will entice other insurers to enter the market, which can only be favorable for physicians,” Ferrucci said.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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