Doctor discipline bill may hinge on malpractice changes

BY MICHAEL AMON
http://www.newsday.com

Passage of a landmark physician discipline bill may hinge on whether state lawmakers and Gov. David A. Paterson also can agree on a package of proposals long desired by doctors to reduce the risk of lawsuits and their malpractice insurance costs.

Defying Paterson on a bill he proposed, state Republican lawmakers said they want to address not only disciplinary matters but also rising malpractice insurance premiums that have driven doctors out of business.

“There is an urgent need to address malpractice costs as they are affecting the consumer on Long Island and New York City,” said Sen. Kemp Hannon (R-Garden City), chairman of the Senate Health Committee. Malpractice insurance premiums increased 14 percent last year and then 15 percent this year.

A Paterson administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity said the governor opposed linking physician discipline and malpractice costs. Supporters of Paterson’s bill said the compromise efforts were an attempt to defeat the legislation, as another powerful lobby, trial lawyers, opposes many efforts at tort reform, that is, changes in malpractice law more favorable to doctors.

“It’s the kind of horse trading that should be rejected,” said Blair Horner, legislative director for the New York Public Interest Research Group. “It’s a strategy to either kill or change the proposal.”

Lawmakers met administration officials Friday afternoon but reached no agreement, Hannon said. The meeting comes as time runs out for the discipline measure this regular legislative session, which is due to adjourn Monday. The legislature may reconvene next month but would be busy addressing the budget, Hannon said.

Paterson’s bill would give the state Department of Health more power in conducting probes of physicians, make public the charges of professional misconduct filed against doctors, and require the state to investigate doctors with long malpractice histories. It came after criticism of the state’s handling of the Dr. Harvey Finkelstein case on Long Island.

Physicians oppose parts of the bill. They would be “100 percent behind” a patient safety bill that includes insurance premium relief and changes in malpractice law, said Dr. Michael Rosenberg, president of the Medical Society of the State of New York, which advocates for the state’s 65,000 doctors. The Medical Society has begun a radio advertising campaign on the issue in Albany.

One compromise discussed Friday was having the Assembly pass a measure making it cheaper for physicians to qualify for state-funded excess liability coverage, said Sen. John Flanagan (R-East Northport), who sponsored a similar measure that passed the Senate in April.

Complicating matters is that a medical malpractice liability task force convened by former Gov. Eliot Spitzer has yet to make recommendations on insurance premiums or tort reform. “That’s left everybody hanging,” Hannon said.

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