In a blunt assessment to fellow doctors, Kentucky Gov. Ernie Fletcher said Monday that chances of limiting pain-and-suffering damages in medical malpractice cases are bleak because of resistance from some state lawmakers. The governor expressed a willingness to compromise if he wins another term.
Speaking at a Kentucky Medical Association meeting, Fletcher said doctors should settle for another version featuring a pretrial dispute resolution process aimed at reducing “frivolous” malpractice suits.
Specifically, he said independent boards – possibly consisting of doctors and patient advocates – would review malpractice filings, with their findings admissible in court.
The review would not preclude a right to jury trial.
“I’m willing to compromise,” Fletcher said after his speech.
The Republican governor said he shared the KMA’s disappointment that proposed constitutional amendments on medical malpractice have died in recent legislative sessions.
Had past proposals reached the ballot and won voter approval, lawmakers could have then limited pain-and-suffering and punitive awards to no lower than $250,000 each.
There would have been no limit on economic damages for lost wages and medical costs.
“I hate to say this, until we change the makeup of the House, we’re not going to be able to get the $250,000 limit on non-economic damages,” Fletcher told doctors. “We’ve tried and tried and tried. But I think it’s time that we move forward and get everything else we can.”
Governors have no veto power over proposed constitutional amendments, but can exert their influence with state lawmakers in trying to get measures on the ballot, or to block such proposals.
Republican state Rep. Bob DeWeese of Louisville, a retired surgeon attending the KMA meeting, said it was the first time he heard Fletcher indicate a willingness to drop proposed caps on non-economic damages.
DeWeese said he thought doctors would accept the compromise,
“They realize that half a loaf is better than nothing,” he said.
DeWeese, however, wasn’t optimistic that Fletcher’s suggestion would jump-start the issue. DeWeese said he offered a similar compromise two years ago that failed to salvage a proposed constitutional amendment.
Fletcher, who is being challenged by Democrat Steve Beshear in the Nov. 6 election, also spoke about requiring insurance companies to justify their medical malpractice premiums – something Beshear also supports.
Beshear said that putting caps on non-economic damages “is not a realistic solution. I do understand the tremendous strain rising malpractice insurance places on doctors and the communities they serve.”
Beshear said he wants to bring all sides of the medical malpractice issue together for discussions, adding that he’s “committed to finding solutions to address this issue.”
Supporters of limiting non-economic damages say it’s needed to halt rising malpractice insurance rates forcing some doctors to quit doing high-risk procedures or leave for states where insurance rates are lower.
Critics say the limits would not guarantee that insurance rates drop or stabilize.
Sen. Charlie Borders, R-Grayson, said Monday he still wants to see limits on non-economic awards in malpractice cases, which he says could lower malpractice premiums. But he said the governor’s willingness to compromise “may indeed be the best thing we can do with the current situation being what it is.”
“If that’s all you can get at this point in time, maybe that’s what you’ve got to take,” he said.
In his speech, Fletcher also cited improvements in health care during his term. He said the Medicaid budget was shored up, payments were improved to doctors treating Medicaid patients, a state program was created that helps small businesses provide health coverage for employees and health screenings for newborns were expanded.
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