Florida House OKs Medical Malpractice Bill

By BRUCE SCHREINER | May 3, 2013

Florida lawmakers finished work Wednesday on legislation making changes to medical malpractice rules, with its critics complaining to the end that the results will hurt victims making malpractice claims.

The measure (SB 1792) cleared the House on a 77-38 vote and now heads to Gov. Rick Scott for his consideration. The bill passed the Senate last month.

The bill had an influential backer in Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, and its House manager was his son, Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach.

The legislation requires that expert witnesses who are called against a defendant doctor practice the exact same kind of medicine and not just be in similar fields.

Rep. Cynthia A. Stafford, a Miami Democrat, said that section would hurt defendants because it would “unduly restrict the pool of experts who will be available to testify.”

The bill also would allow – but does not require – any health care provider called as a witness to breach patient confidentiality and give the defendant’s attorneys information about a patient’s treatment.

That provision applies to the informal fact-finding period before a lawsuit is filed. After a lawsuit is filed, the state’s court rules apply that limit who attorneys can talk to and what they can ask.

Opponents said the provision would encroach on the privacy of medical records.

Matt Gaetz said in an earlier debate that defendants should be able to ask about usually private health-related information because plaintiffs, by suing, choose to make their medical condition an issue.

Stafford said Wednesday that the changes add up to creating “unnecessary barriers and hurdles” to “holding people accountable for their actions.”

“This bill makes it … harder for true victims to seek justice,” she said.

Other critics said Florida already has stringent rules that contributed to reducing the number of medical malpractice claims in the state, from about 2,000 in 2003 to about 900 last year.

Rep. Dave Kerner, D-Lake Worth, said the proposed changes would push Florida’s medical malpractice system “to the fringe” nationally. He said only three other states have similar standards.

The bill’s supporters, knowing they had the necessary votes in hand, were largely silent during Wednesday’s debate.

During the Senate debate last month, Republican Sen. Tom Lee said the bill was an effort to create “fairness” in the system to ensure accused doctors are not subjected to a “voodoo scientist” who testifies against them.

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