The Kentucky House voted Wednesday to shake up the medical malpractice system by passing a bill to create panels of medical providers to review claims of medical error or neglect.
The panels would scrutinize the merits of lawsuits against health care professionals or institutions before cases would proceed to court. In a key change made by the House, judges could be asked to admit a panel’s opinions as evidence at trial.
House members voted 51-45 to pass SB 4, sending it back to the Senate. If the Senate accepts the House’s changes, the legislation would advance to Gov. Matt Bevin.
Rep. Robert Benvenuti III, R-Lexington, said the panels would bring a “balanced, unbiased and thoughtful approach” without infringing on anyone’s right to take malpractice claims to court.
“We have to start bringing some liability reform to our commonwealth,” he said. “We are a target-rich environment for lawyers.”
Opponents said the bill would create barriers, delaying plaintiffs’ access to courts. They predicted it would face a court challenge if it becomes law.
“We’re getting ready to pass something that’s unconstitutional,” said Rep. Chad McCoy, a Bardstown Republican.
McCoy, an attorney, predicted the creation of panels would have the unintended result of more malpractice claims being pursued. Plaintiffs’ attorneys would see it as an opportunity to take a case, regardless of merit, and “run it up the flagpole” to the panels, he said.
McCoy also objected to creating a new layer of review for malpractice lawsuits filed in Kentucky against doctors, hospitals, nursing homes or their executives.
“We’re getting ready to create a new government agency and more red tape,” he said. “I’m a Republican. I don’t like that … To me, that is ridiculous that we’re doing it.”
Rep. Jason Nemes, R-Louisville, responded that changes made by the House would help the bill withstand any court challenge.
“For every fear you’ve heard today, if you read the bill you will understand that there’s no need to fear what’s in this bill,” he said. “It’s a fair, balanced process.”
Those changes include requiring review panels to issue opinions in nine months or lawsuits could proceed in court. Under the original bill, the panel’s opinions would automatically be admitted into court as evidence. Trial judges would be asked to decide in the House’s version.
Similar measures were introduced for years but died when Kentucky’s legislature was politically divided. The push to create review panels gained strength when Republicans took control of the House after last year’s election. The Senate is also solidly controlled by the GOP.
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