Ariz. MDs Group Moves Closer to Ballot Campaign on Med-Mal

By | June 27, 2005

A statewide group representing physicians is gearing up for a possible multimillion-dollar initiative campaign aimed at helping doctors burdened by rising costs for medical malpractice insurance.

The Arizona Medical Association is seeking proposals from political consulting firms for work on a possible 2006 ballot measure in an arena where similar questions in other states have cost $6 million to $8 million to promote, spokeswoman Andrea Smiley said Friday.

The hiring of a firm, partly to help gauge the viability of voter-approved medical malpractice proposals, follows a unanimous vote by the association’s leadership in favor of a resolution supporting “an Arizona constitutional change effort aimed at meaningful, comprehensive tort reform.”

Smiley acknowledged the resolution approved in May is “fairly vague” and said the association has yet to decide what specific changes to seek. Also, a final decision on whether to launch an initiative campaign or to ask the Legislature to put a proposal on the ballot through a referendum is pending, she said.

Possible proposals include setting caps on non-economic damages and contingency fees, authorizing the Legislature to set caps and creating specialized courts to handle health-care cases, Smiley said.

While trial lawyers point a finger of blame at insurance companies, the doctors group contends that lawsuit-related insurance costs keep some doctors from starting practices in Arizona and drives older ones into early retirement.

“There’s still a lot of research that we need to do to determine the best direction for our state,” Smiley said.

Decisions must be made by the fall, particularly if time is needed to gather signatures for an initiative, she said.

The Legislature earlier this year considered putting a damage-caps measure backed by the medical association on the 2006 ballot but lawmakers ultimately set it aside, with the association saying it was content that dialogue had begun.

The Legislature did pass a bill which supporters said could help restrain physicians’ rising premiums for malpractice insurance and generally help encourage doctors to practice in Arizona. That measure, signed into law April 25 by Gov. Janet Napolitano, tightens rules on who can testify as an expert witness in malpractice cases and lets doctors apologize to patients and patients’ families without hurting themselves in state court.

The Arizona Constitution guarantees a right to sue to recover damages, so placing caps on damages would require voter approval.

Last November, voters in four states decided ballot measures on medical malpractice. Wyoming and Oregon voters rejected doctor-backed proposals to implement award caps while Nevada voters approved a cap. Florida voters backed limits on attorneys’ fees but also supported measures to give the public more information about doctors’ mistakes.

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

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