Coalition Delivers Signatures for Wash. Med-Mal Initiative

By Rebecca Cook | December 3, 2004

Led by a father whose baby was badly injured during a botched delivery, a coalition of activists, labor leaders and lawyers has submitted about 200,000 signatures for an initiative to the Washington Legislature aimed at reforming medical malpractice laws.

“You need to hold everyone accountable: doctors, lawyers and insurance companies, if you’re going to have meaningful reform,” said Dylan Malone, whose son Ian died last May of injuries sustained at birth. “I said at Ian’s service, I would honor his memory by trying to change the system.”

But doctors say the initiative is just a giveaway to trial lawyers, and they plan to present their own medical malpractice reform initiative to the Legislature.

The Legislature has gridlocked on medical malpractice changes for the past several years, so the decision on both reform plans will likely go to voters.

Initiative 336 supporters delivered roughly 200,000 signatures on Dec. 1, more than the 197,734 needed to put an initiative before the Legislature. They plan to turn in more signatures before the Dec. 30 deadline.

Their initiative would make several changes in current law, including:

Three strikes: Revoke licenses of doctors who have three jury verdicts against them in 10 years for preventable medical injuries.

Ban secret settlements in medical malpractice cases.

Require public hearings if an insurance company wants to increase malpractice insurance rates by more than 15 percent, and require those insurance companies to open their financial records to the public.

Establish a supplemental insurance fund for clinics, hospitals and health care providers.

“This offers some real hope to do something about the cause of the problem,” said Rep. Tom Campbell, a Republican from Roy who supports the initiative.

Meanwhile, supporters of rival Initiative 330 are still collecting signatures. Tom Curry, executive director of the Washington State Medical Association, said they expect to have enough signatures by the deadline.

I-330 would cap pain and suffering damages and limit legal fees in malpractice cases, in addition to other reforms.

“Initiative 330 addresses the real problems in the tort system,” Curry said. He called I-336 “the policy equivalent of the man-eating plant in Little Shop of Horrors,” with trial lawyers in the role of the carnivorous plant demanding “feed me!”

Colorful metaphors and heated rhetoric will doubtless fly from both sides of the medical malpractice debate during this spring’s legislative session.

If I-336’s signatures are valid, the secretary of state will send the measure to the Legislature in January. If that happens, legislators could pass the initiative. Or they could pass an alternative initiative, which would then go to the voters alongside the original initiative. If they ignore or reject the initiative, it goes to the people for a vote next November.

Democrats will hold majorities in the House and Senate next year, which means there’s almost no chance of I-330 passing. Some Democrats may be more excited about I-336, but it would be a tough and politically risky vote for most.

“The voters will make the decision in November,” Curry predicted. “I look forward to a spirited debate.”

Copyright 2004 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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