Malpractice insurance needs tighter controls

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Doctors are returning to the state Legislature this year to urge enactment of limits on noneconomic damage awards in malpractice lawsuits, which they blame for skyrocketing insurance rates. A better approach would be tightening insurance controls and empowering the state’s Medical Claims Conciliation Panel to halt frivolous lawsuits before they reach court.

Plaintiffs’ attorneys have largely ignored Hawaii’s $375,000 cap on awards for physical pain and suffering, instead asking juries to award larger amounts as compensation for mental anguish, disfigurement and loss of enjoyment of life. That strategy too often is blamed for increases in malpractice insurance rates.

In past years, Hawaii doctors have asked the Legislature to duplicate California’s $250,000 cap on malpractice insurance rates. The argument failed when it was pointed out that California’s malpractice insurance rates rose six-fold in the 13 years following the cap’s enactment and were finally brought under control in 1988 after voters required state approval of tighter insurance regulation. Now they point to Texas, which they say had a net loss of 14 obstetricians from 2001 to 2003 but has experienced a net gain of 163 obstetricians since the enactment of caps.

Hawaii’s overall health care performance is ranked best in the nation by the Commonwealth Fund, a foundation promoting health care. Legislators should pause before patterning any aspect of the islands’ health care system after Texas, ranked 48th among states’ overall performances and dead last in patient access.
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