Doctors, Lawyers Skirmish Again on Med-Mal Reforms

July 1, 2004

Wyoming doctors and lawyers renewed their skirmish over medical malpractice insurance costs this week during one of the final hearings before the Legislature addresses the issue at its special session next month.

“Wyoming is losing doctors,” said Dr. Robert Bricca, a family practitioner from Jackson. “It is pretty clear to me that there’s a crisis in health care. I see the attrition.”

Bricca joined several other physicians and health care providers, along with business groups, in urging two dozen lawmakers comprising two joint committees to pass a measure allowing voters to decide whether to impose caps on certain malpractice damage awards.

“It seems to me that the system, if not broken, is very crippled,” he said.

But Robert Tiedeken, a Cheyenne attorney, argued otherwise.

“The system isn’t broken,” he said, adding that the courtroom is still capable of being the place where “we resolve disputes between citizens in this country.”

Tom Throop of the Equality State Policy Center urged legislators to go slowly amid expectations that are “highly unrealistic” for the special session that begins July 12.

Rather than amending the state constitution, lawmakers should fund actuarial studies that could point to long-term solutions.

He also argued that insurance reform, not caps on damage awards, would do a better job of reining in malpractice costs.

A Cheyenne railroad worker also opposed limits on jury awards.

“It will make it even harder to compensate Wyoming citizens who may have been injured by a medical mistake,” he said.

But many doctors said that if drastic measures aren’t taken, few providers will be able to afford insurance and will have to move out of state, leaving residents with dwindling health care options.

Dr. Maura Lofaro, a Jackson obstetrician, said she and her two partners pay $160,000 a year in premiums, and that many doctors are losing money delivering babies.

Dr. Tom Markello, a pediatrician from Douglas, said he has never had a malpractice claim filed against him. “Still, my premiums are higher in this state than the two other states I’ve practiced in,” he said.

Cindy Paul, who described herself as a health care consumer, suggested that if the Legislature approves an amendment limiting damages that more meetings be held throughout the state so “we can ask questions and clarify this.”

Besides damage caps on non-economic damages such as pain and suffering and loss of enjoyment of life, lawmakers are considering creation of a medical errors commission to determine compensation for doctors’ mistakes and direct subsidies to physicians, amid a variety of proposals.

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