Wyo. Lawmakers Trying to Stem Doctor Liability Costs

February 7, 2005

In the first half of the legislative session, the health care industry watched the demise of several measures meant to stem rising insurance costs for doctors.

“The liability crisis is getting worse,” said Susie Pouliot of the Wyoming Medical Society. “We’ve had 10 doctors leave, retire or restrict services since Jan. 1st.”

While some of the departures were due to normal attrition, most were a result of high medical malpractice insurance costs in the state, she said.

But among lawmakers, there is no consensus on what exactly drives those costs or effectiveness of legislative attempts elsewhere to rein them in.

In addition, where reforms have been implemented – such as caps on financial damage awards to injured patients – insurers don’t always promise to reduce their rates, preferring to see if the reforms hold up in court.

In last summer’s special session, a constitutional amendment was proposed that would have allowed the Legislature to set caps on certain damage awards in malpractice cases, such as for pain and suffering. The measure was designed to provide some certainty for insurers.

But it was defeated at the polls.

Sen. Charles Scott, R-Casper, said voters chose “legal services over medical services.”

Meanwhile, lawmakers have one less option to entice doctors to the state.

“We’re making very little progress this session,” Scott said. “It looks like the crisis is going to play out.”

Marcia Shanor, a lobbyist for the Wyoming Trial Lawyers Association, said to put so much faith in jury award caps is to overlook many other options.

“The citizens have sent a strong message that they believe there are other solutions besides limiting their rights,” she said. “With the exception of that one, we’re free to look at all other solutions that are out there and it is my hope that that (amendment’s defeat) would be the catalyst for us to do that.”

She backs a measure that would require reporting of medical mistakes to the state Department of Health.

“Let’s address medical errors,” she said. “If we get rid of medical errors, then there are no lawsuits, and the concerns over (insurance) costs are gone.”

Shanor also supports requiring insurance companies to report all claims against doctors and details of court settlements.

“That would help us see if what is being paid out is really a problem, whether some of the ideas we’re considering would even make a difference,” she said.

One bill still alive would create a fund to defray the cost of medical malpractice claims. The fund would pay claims between $350,000 and $1 million.

“That would provide some relief,” Rep. Doug Osborn, R-Buffalo, said. “The problem is it just puts it on the backs of the state and the citizens.”

Most observers agree the key legislation this session is a proposed medical review panel to examine lawsuits against doctors and possibly discourage frivolous ones before they are filed in court.

Lawmakers are trying to determine the makeup of the panel, how much power it should have and whether evidence it gathers should be admissible in court. The idea receives another look by the House on Tuesday.

Osborn said the medical review panel “is about all that’s left.”

“It provides some hope,” he said.

Added Scott: “It can help a little, but it won’t solve the problem.”

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

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