Wash. Physicians Launch Campaign for Liability Reform

September 1, 2004

Frustrated by the lack of action on meaningful medical liability reform, physicians in the state of Washington launched an initiative campaign designed to break the gridlock in Olympia over sensible reform of medical liability laws.

Doctors for Sensible Lawsuit Reform, a group representing more than 9,000 physicians in Washington state, will begin gathering the required 197,734 valid signatures to place Initiative 330 – The Health Care Access Initiative (I-330) before the legislature in 2005.

“For the past two legislative sessions, despite a demonstrated need for action, a few obstructionist politicians in the House have refused to take action on meaningful medical liability reform, preventing House members from even voting on the issue,” said Dr. Jeff Collins, president of the Washington State Medical Association and practicing internist in Spokane, Wash. “This gridlock must end. We have no other choice than to compel the legislature to do its job so we can get back to doing our job — treating patients without the constant fear of a lawsuit.”

I-330 restores fairness and balance to the liability system so doctors can continue to practice medicine and serve their patients and communities. If the legislature fails to act on the initiative during the legislative session beginning in January, I-330 will proceed to the general election ballot in the fall of 2005.

For several years physicians have been warning that excessive costs and an unfair legal system are threatening the ability of physicians to practice medicine — potentially leaving patients without access to needed care. Doctors are limiting vital services such as obstetrics, mammography, trauma care and brain surgery because of the fear of being sued and the uncontrolled costs of the legal system.

A July 2004 survey by Elway Research shows the impact of liability insurance rates and the fear of being sued is significantly impacting health care in Washington state. Some interesting findings include:

— 51 percent of doctors said they are less willing to perform high-risk procedures
— 44 percent said they have stopped certain high-risk services
— 51 percent said some of their patients have had to leave their practice for certain services they no longer offer.

Many communities are finding themselves without necessary medical services and some areas are finding it extremely difficult to recruit new physicians.

— 71 percent of doctors said their patients now have to travel further to receive care
— 81 percent said that in the last year their community has had difficulty recruiting physicians for various specialties
— 61 percent said their patients have to wait longer to get an appointment compared to previous years.

I-330 includes provisions that will:

— Maximize patient recovery of damages – a sliding scale cap on attorney’s fees ensures the patient will get more of the award;
— Fully compensate patient injury – there is no limit on actual damages, including lost wages, medical and hospital bills, rehabilitation, prescription drugs, in-home care, child care, special vehicles and other equipment. In addition, patients can receive another $350,000 up to possibly $1,050,000 for pain and suffering and other non-economic damages;
— Guarantee payments over time – awards over $50,000 would be paid over time to ensure the injured patient receives benefits on an ongoing basis;
— Simplify the process — quicker settlements will be encouraged through voluntary arbitration and mandatory mediation of disputes;
— Make juries aware of other payments – the risk of unjust double recoveries will be reduced by fully informing juries about other compensation the injured patient has received or will receive.

“We know from research there is broad public support for fixing the tort system in this way,” said Collins. “When we get the required signatures it will be a message to legislators – directly from the people of Washington – ‘stop the gridlock, fix the problem so I can have access to my doctor.'”

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