The Republican-controlled Florida Legislature is pushing ahead this year with changes meant to curb medical malpractice lawsuits against doctors.
This effort is being criticized as an attack on the privacy rights of patients and comes at a time when fewer medical malpractice claims are being filed, according to state regulators.
Lawmakers are seeking to make it harder to prove a doctor has committed medical malpractice and to permit an attorney to privately interview doctors without the patient or patient’s attorney in the same room.
Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach and sponsor of the House bill, said his legislation will make Florida more attractive for doctors. One of the aims of his legislation is to cut down on the number of unneeded tests given by doctors to ward off potential lawsuits, he said.
“This will be a great place to practice medicine,” Gaetz said.
A House panel on Monday became the third committee to approve the bill (HB 385). A similar version is now moving in the Senate as well.
Opponents of the bill sharply criticized the legislation. Orlando personal injury attorney Maria Tejedor said the proposal will destroy the relationship between doctors and patients.
Tejedor also warned that the standard of proof included in the bill was so tough that it could allow a doctor to escape punishment even if that physician failed to recommend a mammogram for a female patient who ultimately came down with breast cancer.
“That woman would need to virtually prove that doctor intended to give her terminal cancer,” Tejedor told legislators.
Gaetz insisted that physicians would still be held responsible for their actions, but said that sometimes there are “bad outcomes” in medicine. He also downplayed the privacy issue, saying that anyone who sues for malpractice is losing their ability to keep their medical history private.
Florida already has a very complicated process for medical malpractice lawsuits that requires a patient to submit a statement from a medical expert backing up a negligence claim. Doctors must also be told ahead of time that they may be sued.
Gaetz’s bill would allow attorneys representing a doctor to privately interview other doctors who treated the patient during the time period before the lawsuit is filed.
In 2003, legislators enacted major changes to the state’s medical malpractice laws, including placing limits on damages that can be paid out in certain malpractice cases. A report released by state regulators last fall said that the changes have worked and that the number of closed malpractice claims in 2010 was lower than in 2009.
The Office of Insurance Regulation report also pointed out that on average malpractice insurance premiums dropped for physicians and surgeons, although rates for nurses and some specialists had gone up.
Gaetz and some other Republicans this year also wanted to give sovereign immunity protections to emergency room physicians.
But he acknowledged on Monday that the financial cost for the state was too great and he removed that provision from the bill. One estimate said having the state shield emergency room doctors would have cost taxpayers as much as $24 million a year.
The Senate is pushing ahead with a similar malpractice bill (SB 1506). That legislation also includes a provision to allow optometrists to prescribe certain drugs.
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