Compromise Plan on Ore. Malpractice Damages Drawing Concerns

May 23, 2005

After months of talks by doctors, attorneys and legislators, a compromise plan on limited court damages to medical negligence victims may have emerged.

But the proposal, which is getting an airing in the state Senate, is still facing criticism from all sides.

The proposed legislation seeks to cut costs and insurance rates by forcing malpractice cases to be presented to a pre-trial screening committee before lawsuits could be filed.

If cases seem valid, settlements could be reached sooner without expensive trials; if cases seem frivolous, the panel could flag them.

The bill also suggests the start-up of a nonprofit insurance fund, similar to one in place for Oregon’s attorneys.

The fund would cover malpractice damages by spreading the risk equally among all practicing doctors, relieving specialists from shouldering crushing premiums.

And, after Oregon voters trounced two ballot attempts to limit court awards, the legislation would not restrict the court damages that victims or their families could receive.

“The goal is to try and break the gridlock between these two professions, which is not doing the state any good,” said Sen. Floyd Prozanski, D-Eugene, an attorney and chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee. “But we are not going to use the legislation as a vehicle for something voters will not support.”

Doctors say rising malpractice insurance premiums are out-of-control, spurring an exodus of specialists like neurosurgeons and obstetricians from rural locales.

Measure 35, which narrowly failed in November, would have rewritten the state Constitution to cap pain and suffering awards at $500,000. It was opposed by lawyers, consumer protection groups and the AARP, who said insurance reform would be more effective in driving down premiums.

In the talks at the Capitol, physicians and lawyers agreed that people who are truly harmed should be compensated, and also agreed that too-high malpractice insurance rates hurt the state.

But several signs suggest that a compromise may prove elusive.

For one thing, the Oregon Medical Association is preparing an initiative for the November 2006 ballot that would reduce lawsuits by limiting what lawyers can get paid if they represent people in personal injury and wrongful death cases.

Sen. Ben Westlund, R-Tumalo, said he fears Oregon voters will end up facing another hot-button campaign that would likely leave the state facing the status quo, and rural Oregon hurting.

“We can get a lot further down the trail toward rectifying a bad situation by finding agreement, rather than going to a winner-take-all fight on the ballot,” he said.

John Moorhead, an OHSU emergency room technician and past president of the doctors’ association, said the group is keeping all of its options open.

“Beating each other up doesn’t work,” he said. “But we need meaningful reform for premium relief.”

He said doctors do not agree with the format of the proposed pre-trial committee, because all the findings would be advisory and confidential, he said.

Instead, Moorhead said doctors would prefer a plan like one that’s in place in Maine, where the findings of the pretrial screening are admissible in court.

He said that has helped keep frivolous claims from advancing to trials.

Prozanski said the committee will debate amendments and he hopes to pass out a bill next week.

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

Was this article valuable?

Here are more articles you may enjoy.