Colorado Delays Action on Bill to Raise Limits for Malpractice Suits

By Steven K. Paulson

A Colorado House committee delayed action on a bill that would increase the amount juries can award in some medical malpractice suits after doctors warned it could force them to 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 was opposed by the state’s largest medical malpractice insurer and many doctors, who have been flooding lawmakers with calls and e-mails.

Supporters delayed a vote after the bill ran into trouble over concerns it would drive up costs.

A parade of witnesses told lawmakers they had little recourse after medical malpractice left them or their loved ones crippled for life.

“I feel for the doctors, but their lives go on. Ours are forever changed,” said Janine Vitetta, whose daughter, Krysta, is confined for life in a wheelchair.

Dr. Brian Harrington, an obstetrician from Steamboat Springs, warned lawmakers many doctors in rural Colorado are on the financial brink. He said he might have to stop delivering babies. He said Craig is already down to two doctors who deliver babies, and one of them is planning to leave because of rising costs.

“They got out. The expense wasn’t worth it. One is leaving right now. She didn’t find it worth it, paying malpractice. I just fear this is the tipping point for losing what we have right now in my part of the state,” he told the House Judiciary Committee.

Dr. Jeffrey Hurst, a Lakewood dentist and president-elect of the Colorado Dental Association, said there is already a shortage of dentists in southwest Colorado and the San Luis Valley. He said the shortage is so serious, dentists had to launch a mercy mission to Alamosa recently, where they treated hundreds of patients who had no access to dental care.

Melissa Kuipers, legislative director of the Colorado Trial Lawyers Association, said there is no evidence it would increase premiums. She said low reimbursement rates are responsible for the state’s health care crisis.

The proposal (Senate Bill 164) would apply to cases where someone has been disfigured or impaired. It would allow those people to sue for up to $1 million in economic damages, although the judge could allow jurors to award more money. It would increase noneconomic damages from $300,000 to more than $460,000.

Opponents said the state shouldn’t be making it easier to sue when it’s trying to expand access to health care. They also warned the bill could force patients to drive longer distances.

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