Wash. Senators Pass Gregoire’s Malpractice Compromise

February 24, 2006

Washington State senators have approved changes to the medical malpractice system, endorsing a compromise hammered out by doctors and lawyers in weeks of secret negotiations with Gov. Chris Gregoire.

The bill was approved on a unanimous vote, gaining support even from Republicans who have reservations about its limited reach.

“This is a work in progress, and I think we need to understand there are many, many issues that are not dealt with,” said Sen. Alex Deccio, R-Yakima, the ranking Republican on the Senate’s health panel.

Senate Health and Long Term Care Committee Chairwoman Karen Keiser, D-Kent, agreed more should be done. But she added that lawmakers have more bills in the works, particularly those trying to safeguard patients.

“This is not the second coming,” she said after the vote. “But it is a huge step in terms of getting virtual enemies to talk and negotiate and come to an agreement. You end wars with that kind of thing.”

The malpractice bill would make changes to three broad areas: medical safety, civil liability and insurance regulation. Highlights include:

*Requiring hospitals to report serious medical problems, such as those resulting in patient death or injury, to the state Health Department within two days of learning about them.

*Giving the state insurance commissioner authority to approve malpractice rate increases before they go into effect and to collect more information about closed malpractice claims.

*Setting up a system of voluntary arbitration for malpractice cases, with maximum awards limited to $1 million and no right to a new trial when appealing the arbitration.

Majority Democrats resisted Republican attempts to add measures preferred by the health care industry, including caps on lawsuit damages and limits on lawyers’ fees.

House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, said he expects the House to approve the malpractice measure in the next few days.

Trial attorneys and doctors have argued for years about changing the malpractice system, which typically uses the courts to secure compensation for patients injured by medical care.

The two sides waged acrimonious initiative campaigns last fall, spending some $14 million and setting a new high mark for initiative campaign costs.

Voters defeated both measures, which sent the parties into negotiations with Gregoire and lawmakers.

Some senators argued that the bill wouldn’t do enough to help doctors pay their malpractice insurance costs, particularly in higher-risk specialties.

Sen. Cheryl Pflug, R-Maple Valley, said the measure was “much ado about a little bit.”

“I think that we’re going to be back here again … until we actually do something fundamental to address this issue,” Pflug said.

Others said they were happy to finally get trial lawyers and the health industry to reach any sort of agreement about malpractice after years of failed attempts.

“I’m tired of saying ‘no,'” said Sen. Dale Brandland, R-Bellingham. “I’m very pleased to stand up before this body and say ‘yes’ to something that is going to move us in a positive direction.”

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