Conn. Med-Mal Bill Passes But Gov. Rell Undecided Whether to Sign It

June 9, 2005

Legislation aimed at curbing rising medical malpractice insurance rates passed the Connecticut House 105-43, but Gov. M. Jodi Rell doesn’t think it will be as effective as her plan and hasn’t decided if she will sign it.

The final proposal was pared down from dozens at the beginning of the year. Though it was crafted by a bipartisan group of lawmakers, some House Republicans complained it was more of what Democrats wanted.

“Our proposal requires sacrifices by all of the affected areas. By lawyers, by doctors and by the insurance industry,” said Rep. Michael Lawlor, D-East Haven, the Judiciary Committee chairman.

Doctors say that increases in insurance rates over the years have caused them to retire early, move out of state or stop performing risky procedures. Some obstetricians told lawmakers they pay as much as $200,000 annually for insurance.

The bill does not include limits on damages awarded by juries for pain and suffering, something doctors argue is critical to solving the problem of rising rates. Lawyers say that the caps unfairly punish victims in malpractice cases. A bill passed last year was vetoed by former Gov. John G. Rowland because it did not include caps.

House Minority Leader Robert Ward, an attorney, attempted to amend the bill to include caps, but failed. The current bill only tweaks the problem, and the state is “better off with nothing than this,” he said.

“I’ll liken it to Rome. Rome is burning, and the General Assembly is fiddling,” said Ward, R-North Branford.

Rell proposed a package of malpractice reforms at the beginning of the session. Her spokesman, Dennis Schain, said Wednesday’s bill won’t hold down rates or ensure quality care as much as the governor’s plan.

The bill requires the state’s insurance commissioner to sign off on malpractice rate increases of 7.5 percent or more. It also lowers the interest added to certain awards. It takes steps to get cases through the courts more efficiently, and limits fees that lawyers can receive.

Lawyers would have to include a signed opinion from another medical professional saying that malpractice had occurred before filing a lawsuit. Hospitals would have to develop procedures — such as marking the right body part before surgery — to better prevent malpractice.

Most agree that the measures won’t be able to lower rates, just lower the rate of future increases. The governor’s office believes her proposal _ which also includes paying large settlements over time and a lower interest rate on some awards — would lower increases by 3 to 5 percent annually, whereas the bill would only lower them by 1 percent.

Ken Ferrucci, director of legislative affairs for the Connecticut State Medical Society, said the bill would have little to no impact.

“I think we’re going to see large double-digit increases again,” he said, adding that hospitals would likely be under more pressure to help pay the insurance premiums for their doctors.

The bill got a lukewarm reception by insurers. “This bill is considered a wash for insurers,” said Don Cleasby, regional manager and counsel for Property Casualty Insurers Association of America (PCI). “While this legislation calls for greater rate-regulation and data reporting by insurers with no indication of tort reform, there are positive amendments in other areas such as improving the offer of judgement statute.”

Lawmakers hope the bill will be signed. The legislation has been a work-in-progress for three years, and the state has already lost a year to see if the reforms would work, they said.

“Given where we are in the session, given what happened last year, it might be better to try this, and next year in this discussion, we’ll know a lot more than we know today,” Lawlor said.

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

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