Malpractice law works

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Indiana’s 1975 malpractice law that established medical panels to examine claims and capped malpractice awards was designed to check the free-for-all that makes malpractice insurance prohibitively expensive in many other states. Though the law could use some fine-tuning, it accomplishes those goals while maintaining the basic rights of malpractice victims to be compensated.

Some physicians – especially those in litigation-vulnerable fields like obstetrics – have been driven to give up their specialties to avoid being sued and wiped out financially. In Illinois, for example, OB/GYN physicians pay up to $266,000 a year in malpractice premiums, while Indiana rates top out at less than $80,000.

As Michael Schroeder reported on Page 1A in Sunday’s edition, the always-revolving malpractice panel finds no malpractice in about two-thirds of the cases it reviews, making it an efficient filter for malpractice cases. Though nobody is denied access to the courts, patients who get unfavorable reviews from the panel often can’t find attorneys willing to take their cases.

Though Indiana’s law has succeeded in holding down malpractice-insurance costs and keeping physicians in Indiana, lawmakers should review the law. The cap on malpractice awards is set at $250,000 from malpractice insurance, and up to $1 million more from the state’s malpractice fund, and it has been raised a couple of times since 1975. But most private health-insurance plans are capped at $1 million, and the cost of health care is rising much faster than inflation. So it’s fair to consider raising the cap again to allow people who make successful claims to collect enough to pay off medical bills and finance ongoing health care.

Legislators should also address the reasons behind the six-year average time lapse between the malpractice incident and the malpractice payment. When patients have medical bills to pay, justice delayed is effectively justice denied.

The three-member panels that review each malpractice claim are composed of health-care workers, leading to suspicions that doctors, nurses and other panel members may sometime err on behalf of their peers. Lawmakers should consider allowing knowledgeable laypersons to serve on the panels as well.

Physicians must make so many judgment calls in their work that no malpractice system can ever be invulnerable to error. But Indiana lawmakers crafted a system that aims to balance the legitimate needs of both sides in malpractice cases.
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