‘The death of tort reform’™ brings retort from Lingle

By B.J. Reyes
http://starbulletin.com

As lawmakers passed their first major deadline of the 2008 session, Gov. Linda Lingle said she remains optimistic about what will eventually reach her desk, but leveled some harsh criticism at lawmakers on an issue that appears dead this session: medical malpractice and tort reform.

“I don’t like to judge things at a very preliminary stage unless it’s obvious that the Legislature has made up its mind on an issue,” Lingle said yesterday at a news conference marking the exchange of bills between the House and Senate. “I guess the one that sticks out from the public’s point of view that they’re most concerned about right now is the medical malpractice insurance issue, because of the arrogant way that it was dealt with by legislators.”

The issue focuses on legislation that would reduce doctors’ medical malpractice premiums and also set limits on “noneconomic damages,” such as pain and suffering, that can be awarded in a malpractice case.

Supporters argue that such reform is needed to lower costs for practitioners in Hawaii, enabling hospitals to keep and recruit doctors, particularly specialists in rural areas.

Proposed legislation has stalled at the committee level the past few years. This year a Senate proposal (SB 2412) was heard by the Health Committee and deferred, while a House version (HB 1992) was passed by the Health and Consumer Protection committees before being denied a hearing by the Judiciary Committee.

Judiciary Chairman Tommy Waters had said he would not hold a hearing on the bill again this year because a similar measure failed to pass out of his committee last year.

Waters (D, Lanikai-Waimanalo) has been criticized for not hearing the bill. The criticism was amplified after a joke he made on the House floor Tuesday night, when he asked if members could observe a moment of silence “for the death of tort reform.”

He has since apologized, saying he regrets the remark, that it was inappropriate and that he was simply trying to lighten the mood in the chamber after a nine-hour floor session.

Lingle said it was the only issue she was really concerned about at this point in the session because of how it was handled.

“I think it was a very arrogant way that they dealt with the issue — almost rubbing the public’s face in it that they had the power to do this but they’re not going to do it,” she said. “They even joked about it. It’s not a joking matter when your family member needs an orthopedic surgeon and can’t get one.”

Waters was unavailable for comment late yesterday, but House Majority Leader Kirk Caldwell said he had the support of the chamber’s Democratic leadership.

Caldwell noted that the hearing on the reform bill last year lasted almost a full day and took testimony from doctors, lawyers, patients and others.

He said a majority of members felt the issue of doctors leaving the state could be better addressed through other means, such as increasing reimbursements for Medicaid, and a proposal this year to provide tax incentives and loan forgiveness to hospitals and doctors who practice in rural areas.

“We believe that is a more constructive approach to solving this problem of doctors leaving Hawaii, particularly in rural areas,” said Caldwell (D, Manoa).

While the tort reform issue is not truly dead until the end of session, the chances of it being brought back are remote.

Rep. Josh Green, the House Health Committee chairman and an emergency room physician who has pushed for reforms the past several years, said he agreed with Lingle.

“Doctors and patients deserve real work on this issue,” said Green (D, Keauhou-Honokohau). “I will work tirelessly until we get a compromise that works on behalf of patents and doctors, and the Judiciary chairman should do the same.”

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