Oregon’s GOP Pushes for Medical Malpractice Liability Limits

By JONATHAN J. COOPER | January 27, 2012

Republicans in the Oregon Senate say they’ll fight Gov. John Kitzhaber’s proposed overhaul of the Oregon Health Plan unless it includes limits on medical malpractice claims, injecting a hot-button issue into one of the Legislature’s biggest debates.

Kitzhaber has pushed back, saying there’s no time to tackle such a controversial issue during the one-month legislative session that begins next month. Instead, he said he’ll invite lawyers, doctors and others with a stake to the governor’s mansion to hammer out a compromise for the Legislature to consider in 2013.

Democrats control the Senate with a slim 16-14 margin, so Kitzhaber doesn’t need Republican support unless Democrats defect, and the GOP has taken a softer line in the House where the party shares power with Democrats. But Senate Republican leader Ted Ferrioli of John Day said he has leverage because he doesn’t think Democrats will want to carry all of the political risk.

“The best role for the Republicans is to stay strong on demanding medical malpractice reform,” Ferrioli said.

Kitzhaber wants to change the Oregon Health Plan – the state’s version of Medicaid that serves low-income patients – to improve coordination of health care and focus on preventing expensive hospital stays. Proponents hope it would reduce duplicated care and provide better health at a lower cost.

Lawmakers are counting on the changes saving millions to help balance the budget, and Kitzhaber hopes to eventually expand the new model to government workers.

Proponents say capping awards for pain and suffering in medical malpractice cases would lower the cost of health care because doctors would have lower premiums for liability insurance and would be less inclined to order unnecessary tests to guard against a lawsuit. Opponents say juries should be able to decide how much money a patient deserves to compensate for a doctor’s mistake.

Liability limits are a “legitimate issue,” said Kitzhaber, who was an emergency-room physician before turning to his political career. But a solution needs to balance competing desires to control costs and to give patients access to justice, he said.

“I think in a one-month session it would be very, very difficult to work out the details,” Kitzhaber said.

In the House, Democrats and Republicans are sharing power and leaders of both have the power to derail a bill, a key Republican was a little more flexible.

“I prefer to work for solutions and rather than use ultimatums, to look for things everyone can agree on,” said Rep. Tim Freeman, R-Roseburg, who is leading negotiations on the issue for Republicans in the House. Medical malpractice limits are important to the controlling rising health care costs, Freeman said.

The Legislature approved the concept for Kitzhaber’s health overhaul last year on a bipartisan vote, but lawmakers must sign off on a detailed plan next month before it can be implemented.

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