Conn. Senate Approves Med-Mal Bill Without Caps on Awards on a 27-9 Vote

The Connecticut state Senate has approved a series of measures designed to lower medical malpractice insurance rates for physicians, who say rising premiums are threatening the availability of medical care in Connecticut.

Senators approved the reform package on a 27-9 vote and sent the proposal to the House with only two days left in the legislative session.

The bill, a compromise drafted from dozens of proposals at the beginning of the session, would change the way courts handle malpractice cases and how doctors would be disciplined for malpractice. But it does not include caps on jury awards for pain and suffering.

Physicians’ groups have complained the expensive rates are driving them out of business, and will leave a shortage of medical care in Connecticut if the General Assembly does not address the problem.

“I am firmly convinced that there is a silent storm out there,” said Sen. Joseph Crisco, D-Woodbridge, co-chairman of the Insurance and Real Estate Committee. “No action would be disastrous.”

The issue has been persistently difficult for lawmakers to tackle successfully. Though a reform bill was approved last year, it was vetoed by former Gov. John G. Rowland because it did not include caps.

Earlier this year, Gov. M. Jodi Rell took the issue of caps off the table. But she said if other proposals did not yield a 15 percent reduction in insurance rates in three years, the state’s insurance commissioner should convene a task force to look at caps.

“Unfortunately, people suffer real injuries from medical mistakes, and I believe they should be compensated,” Rell said at the time.

The bill includes a variety of changes intended to cut down on frivolous cases and make the court process more efficient for malpractice cases.

It would require a second medical expert to certify that malpractice has occurred before a case could be heard by a court. It also would set limits on the fees lawyers receive.

The bill would also reduce the interest rate that is tacked onto original settlement offers if the case goes to trial and is eventually decided in the plaintiff’s favor.

“Part of what we’re doing is reforming the process. We’re trying to speed it up, we’re trying to expedite it,” said Sen. John Kissel, R-Enfield, who helped craft the bill.

It also aims to prevent malpractice. It would require the state’s medical examining board to draft new guidelines for investigating and disciplining doctors by Oct. 1, 2005. It would also require hospitals to develop procedures to use before surgery — such as marking the correct body part — designed to prevent mistakes.

The state’s insurance commissioner would be required to sign off on any insurer’s request to raise malpractice insurance rates by 5 percent or more. But Sen. William Nickerson, R-Greenwich, questioned if that provision could prompt insurers, already working in a pressure-filled market, to leave the state.

“Who is going to go on bended knee with hat in hand and say, ‘My dear commissioner, may I have a rate increase?”’ Nickerson said.

Some questioned whether the legislation would have any effect without caps. None of the changes would immediately deliver relief to doctors, opponents said.

“Once again, I think we’re trying to pull the wool over everyone’s eyes saying, ‘Here we are, look at us, we’re doing something great,”’ said Sen. Judith Freedman, R-Westport.

The bill would require the state’s insurance commissioner to study how the changes have affected rates in three years, and make suggestions for changes to state laws if they haven’t worked.

Sen. Andrew McDonald, D-Stamford, co-chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said it will take time to see what impact the changes will have on insurance rates.

“We know that it will provide some relief, the extent of which is unknown at this point in time,” McDonald said.

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