N.H. Weighs Single Judge Med-Mal Screening

March 31, 2005

New Hampshire state senators seem more interested in a House plan to address the cost of medical malpractice insurance than a bill from one of their own.

The proposal before the Senate Judiciary Committee is based on a system in Maine and would create screening panels involving a judge, lawyer and doctor. The screening panels are intended to cut down on expensive court cases and thereby reduce insurance premiums.

The same plan won Senate approval last year but committee members were skeptical this year. Many senators said they were hesitant to embrace the idea after hearing about delays in Maine in assembling qualified people for the screening panels.

Instead lawmakers focused many of their questions on a House compromise that would allow screening by a single judge. It also would make mediation efforts mandatory before any medical malpractice case could go to trial.

“It’s clean, it’s simple and we think it’ll work,” said Rep. Janet Wall, D-Madbury, a member of the House Judiciary Committee that drafted the compromise.

The House bill was scheduled for a vote this week.

The plan to recreate the Maine model in New Hampshire was sponsored by Berlin Sen. John Gallus, who argued it’s important if the state wants doctors to keep practicing in certain specialties.

“My communities are some of the most underserved in the state,” he said. “You have to drive 60-70 miles to have a baby.” He also pointed to five obstetricians who left Rochester to start a practice in Maine, where the insurance is cheaper.

Several committee members noted that the Maine model has little support with the lawyers in the state. Lawyers argue the system costs more, not less, because it requires a case be tried twice — once before the screening panel and once in court.

When handed a list of hospitals and insurers who support the Maine model, Rochester Sen. Dick Green asked pointedly why therewere no lawyers on the list.

“They want the same thing we want. Why aren’t they on here?” he said.

Nashua Sen. David Gottesman, a lawyer, also had questions for Gallus. He asked if Gallus had investigated whether there are judges available to lead the screening panels, or whether Gallus had researched how long it would take to convene a panel.

Gallus said his goal was to help the women and families in the state who can’t find doctors. “I’ve stayed with the Maine-style panel because it works,” he said.

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

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