Chances Slim for Washington Med-Mal Legislative Action

January 19, 2005

Neither of the two medical malpractice reform initiatives presented to the Legislature this year stands much chance of passing.

“Very unlikely,” said Sen. Karen Keiser, D-Des Moines, chairwoman of the Senate Health Care Committee, which conducted a hearing Jan. 17 on both measures.

That means both initiatives, one crafted by doctors and one by lawyers, will go on the ballot next November for a public vote. The Legislature could put an alternative solution on the ballot—”hopefully we can send all the parties into a locked room and get an agreement,” Keiser said—but that’s a long shot too.

So while supporters of Initiatives 330 and 336 pleaded with legislators, in reality they were rehearsing their message for the voters.

The Senate Health Care Committee didn’t vote on either measure, and Keiser said she doesn’t plan another hearing.

“I wanted to get the politics of this issue over and done with,” she said.

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 revoke licenses of doctors who rack up multiple jury verdicts against them and would require public hearings before insurance companies could increase malpractice insurance rates.

Walla Walla neurologist Dr. Kenneth Isaacs, president of the state medical association, called the current medical malpractice system “broken.”

“Injured patients don’t properly benefit by it, receiving less than half of resources set aside for them” because of lawyers’ fees, Isaacs said. “It is wasteful and expensive.”

He called the rival initiative “pure retaliation” by the trial lawyers, and said it was an attempt to divert the discussion.

Sen. Adam Kline, D-Seattle, cross-examined the I-330 supporters like the plaintiff’s lawyer he is.

“Aren’t you really trying to close the courthouse door?” he asked.

Several injured patients who came to Olympia to speak in favor of I-336 accused the doctors of trying to do just that.

“I know for certain if I-330 passes, real people will suffer,” said Ashley Bucy of Gig Harbor, whose legs and fingertips had to be amputated after she was misdiagnosed repeatedly at an emergency room. “The fat pockets on the insurance companies never really see us, but injured patients struggle every day … We need hope.”

Dylan Malone of Everett, whose son Ian died last year of injuries sustained during a botched delivery, said I-336 aims to “bring down the cost of medical malpractice by reducing the incidence of medical malpractice.”

Keiser said neither initiative addresses the major problem of health care, which is rising costs. I-330, she said “is like beating a drum and not working toward a solution,” while she characterized I-336 as “more of a defensive action.”

She urged supporters of both initiatives to work out a compromise solution. However, neither side seems very open to that possibility.

“There’s just this hard-core attitude,” Keiser said.

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

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