Massachusetts medical professionals are calling for reforms to the state’s medical liability system that they say will protect physicians from more lawsuits and help control insurance costs.
To support their call, the physicians are citing a new report that terms the economic consequences of the current medical liability system as “potentially disastrous” and an obstacle to implementation of the state’s new health insurance mandate.
The Massachusetts Medical Society testifed on bills to make apologies inadmissible as evidence; tighten rules on expert witnesses; require 182 days advance notice of a lawsuit; and shield physicians and other health care professionals from civil suits when theyvolunteer during a health emergency
In backing the bills before the Joint Committee on the Judiciary, the society said the cost of liability insurance for physicians is “one of the major factors in the deteriorating physician practice environment in the state.”
According to the group, liability premiums for physicians have risen 132 percent in the 13-year period ending in 2005.
As costs rose, the society said, recruitment and retention of physicians has become more difficult, leading to shortages in some specialties such as neurosurgeons, vascular surgeons, anesthesiologists, cardiologists, and gastroenterologists, according to the group.
The medical organization pointed to a new study as evidence that reform is needed.
The report, “Restoring Value and Trust in our Health Care System: Achieving Real Medical Liability Reform with an Early Disclosure and Compensation Model,” was prepared for the legislature’s Committee on Health Care Financing by Peter Smulowitz, M.D., a physician at Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital and St. Luke’s Hospital in New Bedford.
B. Dale Magee, president of the Massachusetts Medical Society, said the report urges changes that physicians have been advocating for several years – more openness and disclosure about mistakes, offering apology when necessary, greater attention to patient safety efforts, and supplying timely compensation to patients who are injured.
The report maintains that the implementation of health care reform will increase the demand for physician services, yet the increase in professional liability costs is one of the key factors in driving the state’s shortage of practicing physicians.
The current system does not accomplish the task of equitably compensating patients, nor does it make the practice of medicine safer, according to the report.
The report calls the economic consequences of the current system “potentially disastrous.” It says that despite significant costs in pursing or defending a lawsuit, patients keep only about 36 cents of every dollar spent on the system. Plaintiff attorneys’ contingency fees account for 30 percent of any settlement or award, and the rest goes to defense expenses and other administrative costs.
“So while the system wastes billions of dollars that could be spent on useful services, most of the money goes to those who deserve it least,” said the report.
Among the tort reform measures the society testified on were:
House Bill 1370 and Senate Bill 987, which would make health professionals’ statements of regret, apology, or concern regarding an unanticipated outcome inadmissible as evidence in any subsequent legal proceeding. The society said this legislation is aimed at expediting the resolution of malpractice claims by fostering better communications between the parties and reducing the need for costly litigation in some cases.
House Bill 1445 and Senate Bill 988, which would help assure that physicians claiming to be expert witnesses are indeed experts in the area of medicine in which they are testifying. ” This legislation would require that a witness in a medical malpractice trial be board-certified in the same specialty as the doctor on trial.
House Bill 1447, would require the provision of a “notice of intent to file a claim” 182 days prior to beginning a malpractice action against a provider. The objective of this legislation is to provide a window of time during which the parties have an opportunity to enter into negotiation prior to beginning legal action.
Senate Bill 885, legislation that would protect physicians and other health care professionals from civil suits when they volunteer or are called upon to assist during a pandemic or other health emergency.
In related testimony, the medical society also opposed a measure that would abolish the tribunal system for screening out non-meritorious medical malpractice claims. “While the system could be improved,” said the society’s testimony, “its repeal would be a grave error.”
According to the group, of the cases heard by tribunal, about 17 percent are screened out.
Source: Massachusetts Medical Society
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