Wash. Legislature Delves into Med-Mal Initiatives

January 17, 2005

As supporters of two radically different medical malpractice initiatives present their proposals at a Monday legislative hearing, state Insurance Commissioner Mike Kreidler is touting new numbers that suggest the crisis isn’t so bad after all.

“It’s clear that insurance goes through cycles,” Kreidler said, noting that the state’s largest medical malpractice insurer is lowering rates this year. “You can track these cycles every 10 to 15 years, and it’s very predictable. We’re seeing some very positive indications.”

A coalition led by the Washington State Medical Association has proposed Initiative 330, which would cap non-economic damages and limit lawyers’ fees in medical malpractice lawsuits. A rival coalition, led by trial lawyers, is pushing Initiative 336, which would require public hearings before insurance companies can increase malpractice insurance rates and revoke licenses of doctors that rack up multiple jury verdicts against them.

Both are initiatives to the Legislature, and both will likely go before voters next November. The Senate Health Care Committee holds a hearing on both measures Monday at 3:30 p.m.

The doctors say medical malpractice insurance rates are skyrocketing out of control.

But Kreidler’s research shows that the average cost of medical malpractice rates, adjusted for inflation, has actually declined for many specialties compared to 1985.

For example, the average malpractice insurance payment for obstetricians was $76,150 twenty years ago, adjusted for inflation. The 2005 rate proposed by Physicians Insurance, which insures 70 percent of non-self-insured doctors in the state, is $66,419. For neurosurgery, another high-risk specialty, the average rate went from $88,765 to $86,225.

Kreidler said Physicians Insurance, which is owned by doctors, has proposed a 7.7 percent cut in medical malpractice rates.

“We’re reviewing it to see whether that’s enough, in the face of record profits,” Kreidler said.

Physicians Insurance Vice President and General Counsel Gary Morse said one good year doesn’t mean the medical malpractice worries are solved.

“I just don’t believe one company’s ability for one year to provide modest relief shows any trend at all,” Morse said. “From time to time you come to a plateau and then (rates) take off again.”

Washington State Medical Association Executive Director Tom Curry agreed.

“It’s frustrating to hear our very fine insurance commissioner helping out the trial attorneys on this,” Curry said. “This is not a cycle – this is an ever-higher spiral that has reached a momentary plateau.”

Curry also noted that while I-336 backers claim a broad coalition of consumer and health advocates’ support, all but 66 cents of the $727,500.66 raised by the initaitive sponsors so far comes from the Washington State Trial Lawyers Association.

In the long run, Morse said he believes the medical malpractice system needs serious reform of the type proposed in I-330.

“This society, not just in health care litigation but across the board, has become a society of entitlement, a society that has to reach out and blame somebody for everything that goes wrong,” Morse said, adding that he still believes there are legitimate malpractice cases.

Kreidler said he believes that genuine problems exist in the medical malpractice market, but he thinks both initiatives offer a cure that’s worse than the disease. He said he will urge lawmakers to create their own compromise solution.

“This is an opportunity,” Kreidler said. “This is a time when we should make some real changes to the system.”

Copyright 2004 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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