Bill would raise cap on pain and suffering malpractice lawsuits

Andrew Villegas

A bill that would increase how much patients who sue Colorado doctors for medical malpractice could receive for pain and suffering passed the state Senate on Monday morning.

The bill would allow patients to sue doctors for up to $500,000 for pain and suffering. It passed despite calls from doctors and insurers that the bill will significantly raise insurance rates for physicians.

The $500,000 is on top of the $1 million cap patients can sue for under lost wages and medical costs.

The bill — SB 164 sponsored by Senate President Peter Groff, D-Denver, and Rep. Terrance Carroll, D-Denver — now goes to the House for consideration. The bill passed 18-16, mostly along party lines.

Doctors say the bill, if it becomes law, will drive malpractice insurance rates up 10-12 percent for most doctors and that the uninsured will have to absorb that increase.

Rick Budensiek, a Greeley doctor with a practice at the Westlake Family Physicians, said last week services may become less available because some doctors will be hesitant to take risks. He added costs could increase because of the addition of unnecessary, expensive tests to treatments.

“It’s defensive medicine that we’ll have to perform,” said Budensiek, a member of the Colorado Medical Society’s Council on Legislation, which lobbied against the bill.

Some doctors could see a $10,000 increase in insurance premiums, and at a time when legislators are trying to increase access to health care, the opposite could happen if the bill becomes law, Budensiek said.

“It falls on the people that don’t have insurance,” he said. “Forty-five million people in this country are uninsured, and we’re all paying for the increased costs of that.”

Sen. Scott Renfroe, R-Greeley, said the bill is a step in the wrong direction for health care in Colorado. He voted no on the bill Monday morning.

“Judges already have the discretion to raise the caps (on damages) if the circumstances warrant it,” Renfroe said. “There are other motives behind this. It’s benefiting trial lawyers.”

Both Renfroe and Budensiek said the bill could have a negative impact on rural communities because it may make retirement more attractive to doctors than helping people.

“The cost of liability insurance is going to go up, and it may push doctors out of the market sooner,” Renfroe said.

Democratic backers of the bill say it will apply only to a handful of cases involving people who have been severely injured by bad medical care.

— The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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