Bill allowing higher malpractice awards advances

By Colleen Slevin

The Senate on Thursday gave initial backing to a bill that would increase the amount juries can award in some medical malpractice suits, a move Republicans said could make doctors stop practicing and make health care more expensive.

Democrats said the bill, backed by trial lawyers, simply returns the law to where it was under the state’s original tort reform before it was changed in 2003. It’s opposed by the state’s largest medical malpractice insurer and many doctors, who have been flooding lawmakers with calls and e-mails.

The proposal, Senate Bill 164, applies to cases where someone has been disfigured or impaired. It would allow those people to sue for up to $1 million in damages, although the judge could allow jurors to award more money.

Majority Leader Ken Gordon, D-Denver, said it applies only to a small number of extreme cases such as when someone ends up in a wheelchair or becomes blind because of bad medical care. But Sen. Tom Wiens, R-Sedalia, said creative lawyers would present various kinds of cases as fitting under the disfigurement and impairment category.

The Senate backed the bill 18-15, with one Democrat, Bob Hagedorn, of Aurora, joining with Republicans to vote against it. Opponents said the state shouldn’t be making it easier to sue when it’s trying to expand access to health care. They also argued that higher malpractice premiums could lead doctors to stop practicing, especially in rural areas.

Hagedorn said fear of lawsuits would lead doctors to practice “defensive medicine” – ordering more tests so they could prove they had done all they could do if they are ever sued.

“This is not going to lead to better medical care but it will lead to more costly medical care – care our consumers will pay more for if they are lucky enough to have health insurance,” he said.

Gordon said insurance company spending, such as on big bonuses for executives, was more to blame for the high cost of health care than malpractice suits.

Senators voted to prevent the insurance commissioner from allowing malpractice rates to increase unless insurers could prove that their costs had increased as a result of the legislation and that they didn’t have enough of a surplus when compared with national standards.

Sen. Josh Penry, R-Fruita, said the health care system still would have to bear the additional cost somewhere.
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