Nevada’s Med-Mal Changes Help Doctors, Hinder Lawsuits

February 9, 2007

Physicians’ insurance premiums are down and more doctors are coming to Nevada since voters limited damages in medical malpractice cases, lawmakers were told Wednesday. But trial lawyers said many malpractice victims have been unable to go to court since the law’s passage.

In 2004, Nevada voters passed the Keep Our Doctors In Nevada iniative, which put a $350,000 cap on non-economic damages, such as pain and suffering, in medical malpractice cases. That law also limited the amount that goes to a victim’s attorney.

The initiative, pushed by insurance companies and doctors who said insurers were leaving Nevada, superseded a medical malpractice bill passed during a 2002 special session. That law also capped non-economic damages at $350,000 but allowed for exceptions in cases of gross negligence or “exceptional circumstances.”

Nevada Insurance Commissioner Alice Molasky-Arman said seven companies and two self-insurance pools now provide malpractice insurance in Nevada, rates have stabilized from the rapid hikes that took place in 2002, and two companies recently filed for lower rates.

There are early signs that there may be fewer malpractice claims, but it’s too early to reach any conclusions, Molasky-Arman told the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Under the 2002 malpractice bill and the 2004 initiative, 125 claims have been closed against physicians, with claimants being paid in 20 percent of those cases. Payments averaged $105,000 under the 2002 law, and only four payments, averaging $305,000, have been made since the 2004 initiative took effect.

Before those laws, about 38 percent of claims were paid an average of about $337,000, according to statistics compiled by the Division of Insurance.

More doctors are practicing in Nevada, and they’re paying less for insurance, said Larry Matheis of the Nevada State Medical Association.

Matheis also said the state is recovering from “the medical liability crisis of 2002-2004,” when several insurers left the state. He added that 654 physicians left Nevada during that two-year period, but the state now has a net gain of 200 doctors per year. Nevada has about 2,500 licensed, practicing doctors.

Bill Bradley of the Nevada Trial Lawyers Association disputed Matheis’ characterization of a crisis, and said that the 2004 initiative passed after a massive media campaign to convince Nevadans that their doctors would leave the state because of malpractice suits.

The compromise bill passed in 2002 didn’t have a chance to work, Bradley added.

“We believe that the crisis was, in many instances, manufactured,” said Bradley. “It was done with the political goal of changing the law and denying victims the right to jury trial.”

Many victims of malpractice haven’t been able to access courts since the 2004 law took effect, Bradley said, adding that people who can’t claim much in economic damages, such as seniors and children, often can’t find a good lawyer to bring their case to trial because the possible return is too low.

During the Senate hearing, Sen. Steven Horsford, D-North Las Vegas, expressed concern about people who suffer from medical negligence and may never even get to the point of filing a claim.

“Is there any tracking of how many cases there are that fall into those categories?” asked Horsford. “How many people have been injured that have never gotten to that point?”

Horsford also said that while he’s opposed to damage caps, it’s a good sign that more doctors are staying in Nevada.

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