Critics: Wyoming Medical Review Panels Aren’t Lowering Insurance

May 15, 2007

Critics of panels that review medical malpractice cases in Wyoming say the oversight has not lowered the cost of medical malpractice insurance.

Voters in 2004 amended the state constitution to allow the Legislature to resurrect the panels, which had been struck down by the Wyoming Supreme Court in 1988. Proponents said that such panels could help lower the lost of medical malpractice insurance in Wyoming by screening out frivolous malpractice cases against physicians, dentists, hospitals and nurses.

The Legislature revived the panels with a bill in 2005.

Eric Easton, director of the Wyoming Medical Review Panel, said that in 11 of 39 closed cases, patients either withdrew their claims or settled with the health care provider.

Eighteen cases resulted in lawsuits. In five of those cases, the patients withdrew their claims and now are barred from filing suit because they didn’t participate in the panel.

“I think we have an effect on 25 percent of the cases. That’s just a guess,” Easton said. “They have the option to opt out and just go to court, but it gives them an opportunity to talk ahead of time.”

All the claims are confidential until they are filed in District Court, and then it is up to the judge whether to disclose the panel findings.

Two medical malpractice defense attorneys say they tell their clients to skip the voluntary review process. One of those attorneys, Hank Combs of Casper, said the system doesn’t work.

He said he has had about 10 medical malpractice cases since the panels were resurrected and he has waived a hearing in each one. The reason, he said, is physicians are required to appear before the panel and give sworn testimony that is not confidential and can be used in other proceedings.

“So the plaintiffs get a free crack at getting the doctor under oath at a time when he hasn’t had his case reviewed by expert witnesses and hasn’t had time to sit with his lawyers and get a complete review of the case,” Combs said.

Combs said that while doctors wanted the review panel, the Legislature didn’t talk to the defense lawyers when they developed the bill.

Susie Pouliot, director of the Wyoming Medical Society, said her group wanted a stronger bill. She said the program would be more effective if a panel review were mandatory, not optional, in all malpractice cases.

“From the society’s point of view, we can’t see it has had any impact on the liability problem,” Pouliot said.

In a recent report to the Legislature’s Joint Judiciary Committee, Easton recommended that the Legislature make panel decisions inadmissible in court.

He also recommended a penalty for the health care providers if they don’t answer claims. Currently only the patient is penalized for failure to participate in the panel.

“They cannot file a lawsuit,” Easton said in the report.

Sen. Tony Ross, R-Cheyenne, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said legislators want to let the review panel program mature more before making any changes.

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