Coalition Leaders Address Fla. Med-Mal Crisis

June 16, 2003

Leaders of a broad-based coalition of healthcare and business groups told the Florida Legislature on Monday that “there’s just one decision left to make” in the medical liability crisis – whether they have the resolve to pass Governor Jeb Bush’s reform plan and fix the broken system.

State lawmakers returned to the Capitol for the start of a four-day special session called by Bush to address the worsening crisis. Members of the Coalition to Heal Healthcare in Florida told legislators that the governor’s comprehensive reform package will solve the crisis, and that if lawmakers fail to act again, the state is facing a medical meltdown.

The coalition, spearheaded by the Florida Hospital Association and the Florida Medical Association, includes 130 of the state’s top medical and business groups, collectively representing thousands of employers and millions of workers.

“First, we want lawmakers to know we are standing as one–our coalition is united and unwavering in working together to end this crisis,” said John Thrasher, a former House Speaker and the coalition’s chief lobbyist. “Second, there’s just one decision left for lawmakers – they must decide now whether they will heal Florida’s healthcare system, because legislative delay is moving us toward a medical meltdown.

“Third, there’s one logical solution to this crisis – adopting the comprehensive and reasonable reform package introduced by Governor Bush. We are convinced it will solve our state’s problems,” Thrasher added.

Last fall and early this year, an independent task force of university leaders studied the crisis extensively, holding hearings and taking testimony from hundreds of witnesses around the state. In January, the task force issued a report with 60 recommendations to improve patient safety, enhance physician discipline, stabilize the insurance market, and create more reasonable parameters for lawsuits and compensating injured parties.

Governor Bush and coalition leaders endorsed the comprehensive approach taken by the task force. But legislative leaders couldn’t reach agreement, and the Legislature adjourned from the regular session May 2 without passing any bill to address the crisis.

On May 29, Governor Bush announced he was ordering lawmakers back to Tallahassee from June 16-19 to address the crisis. Bush also unveiled a reform package embracing many of the task force’s recommendations. The governor’s package includes important recommendations in the areas of quality of care, insurance reform, and lawsuit reform.

The governor’s quality of care initiatives include requiring doctors and hospitals to report adverse incidents to patients, providing more authority to the Board of Medicine for disciplining doctors, and requiring patient safety plans at all healthcare facilities.

Insurance reform proposals include revising so-called “bad faith” provisions to provide more fairness in trying and settling cases, requiring insurers to give more claims data to state regulators, and creating self-insurance options for doctors.

The governor’s lawsuit reform proposals include providing sovereign immunity to doctors and hospitals that are required by law to provide emergency care to all patients seeking treatment, encouraging arbitration and mediation to relieve overburdened courts, and providing unlimited economic damages to injured parties, while capping non-economic damages at $250,000.

Governor Bush has reportedly said that if lawmakers pass the package, he’ll seek an immediate 20 percent rate rollback from insurers, a move backed by Florida’s largest medical liability insurer.

Coalition leaders who represent hospitals, doctors and businesses told lawmakers that they must address a crisis that is driving up healthcare costs and eroding the availability of healthcare services for 16 million Floridians. In recent months, hospitals have closed obstetrics units, hospital emergency and trauma care units have faced shutdowns, and scores of doctors have been forced to cease or limit their practices.

“The ultimate losers from all this disruption are Florida’s citizens, who depend on hospitals to offer a full range of quality healthcare services 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” said Wayne NeSmith, president of the Florida Hospital Association and a coalition leader. “The question for our lawmakers is – How bad must it get before they bring us relief?”

“Doctors are deeply concerned about the welfare of their patients, and when they’ve been forced to alter their practices, they’ve taken steps to ensure that patients receive adequate notice and are taken care of in emergencies,” said Sandra Mortham, executive vice president and CEO of the Florida Medical Association. “But lawmakers must address this ‘death spiral’ that doctors are facing – skyrocketing premiums, loss of insurance, a constant threat of lawsuits, and a growing sense of despair over the Legislature’s failure to act.”

Art Simon, a senior vice president of Associated Industries of Florida, said businesses are increasingly concerned by the crisis because it is driving up healthcare costs, making it harder for companies to provide health coverage to workers, and eroding healthcare networks for employees. “Florida, a growing state with a large senior population and millions of tourists each year, cannot be perceived around the nation – or the world – as a place where healthcare services may or may not be there when needed,” Simon said. “Lawmakers should know that Florida’s business leadership will not rest until the Legislature has comprehensively addressed this issue.”

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