Colorado senators clash over malpractice premium cap

By MICHAEL DAVIDSON
http://www.gazette.com

DENVER – Members of the state Senate squared off Thursday over a proposal that would place a cap on premiums insurance companies charge doctors to protect them against malpractice settlements.

The measure was introduced by Senate President Peter Groff, D-Denver, as an amendment to a bill he is sponsoring that would raise the amount of money victims could receive for physical impairment or disfigurement.

The impetus for the amendment was the testimony of doctors who said SB164 would drive up malpractice insurance rates when the bill was introduced to the Senate State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee on Feb. 18.

The bill would raise the amount victims can receive for noneconomic damages to about $450,000, up from the current limit of $300,000, and physical impairment and disfigurement would no longer be categorized as noneconomic damages.

The $1 million cap on total damages a victim could receive would remain in place, although a judge can allow larger settlements for extraordinary cases.

Groff said before the bill passed out of committee that he would address doctors’ fears. He said his amendment is a compromise that will keep costs affordable for doctors while being fairer to victims.

The bill passed 18-15 on a preliminary vote Thursday, and a final vote is expected today. If passed, the bill would move to the House, where another contentious debate is expected.

Republicans strongly opposed the proposal, which they deemed a heavy-handed intrusion into the private sector.

“How much wisdom do we have in this body to control the functioning of the insurance market?� Sen. Shawn Mitchell, R-Broomfield, asked.

The bill would not freeze rates permanently. Insurance companies would be able to raise rates if they could demonstrate the need to the state insurance commissioner, Groff said.

Lobbyists for the insurance industry said the process companies use to set rates is too complicated for the Legislature to manage.

“These issues are for actuaries and insurance commissioners,� said Patrick Boyle. He represents COPIC, the state’s largest malpractice insurance provider.

One prominent Democrat crossed party lines to vote against the bill. Sen. Bob Hagedorn, D-Aurora, is chairman of the Health and Human Services Committee. He said the bill would encourage doctors to order unnecessary tests, which would drive up costs.

“Physicians will look for more and more ways to cover their butts,� Hagedorn said.
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