Medical malpractice bill hits a wall

Denver Business Journal – by Bob Mook

The co-sponsor of a proposal that would raise the caps on medical malpractice lawsuits said Wednesday he would ask the House Judiciary Committee to delay a vote on the bill to work out some issues that doctors raised about the legislation.

Senate Bill 164, sponsored by Sen. Peter Groff, D-Denver, and Rep. Terrance Carroll, D-Denver, would raise the caps for non-economic damages (such as pain and suffering) in medical malpractice cases to match those in other types of lawsuits.

Damages for physical impairment or disfigurement, previously considered as non-economic damages, would be considered economic damages under the bill — with a cap of $1 million.

Under current law, judges can override the caps for economic losses if they determine the patient’s losses exceed $1 million. The bill wouldn’t change that provision.

Proponents said the bill would have given fair compensation to patients who are injured due to the careless actions of doctors.

But SB 164 faced fierce opposition from doctors and insurers who fear that raising the caps will increase the cost of medical malpractice insurance and drive many physicians out of Colorado. They even ran ads on TV urging constituents to ask their representatives to vote against the legislation.

The bill was narrowly approved in the Senate last week after a contentious floor debate.

Following several hours of testimony from doctors and other health care professionals who opposed the bill, Carroll on Wednesday confirmed to reporters that he would ask the House Judiciary Committee to delay the vote on the bill.

The confirmation came after news reports that two Democrats on the committee, Rep. Cheri Jahn, D-Wheat Ridge, and Rep. Debbie Stafford, D-Aurora, opposed the bill as it was written — eliminating chances that the proposal would advance beyond the committee.

Jahn and Stafford had expressed concerns that doctors didn’t get enough input on the bill. Carroll may try to amend the proposal to make it more palatable for critics.

A Wednesday hearing concerning the bill packed the Old Supreme Court Chambers at the state’s Capitol with doctors (donning white coats) lining up to testify in opposition to SB 164, alongside trial lawyers and patient advocates (wearing yellow T-shirts) waiting to testify in favor of it.

Russ Johnson, an administrator for the San Luis Valley Medical Center in Alamosa, said despite the fact Colorado physicians are paid less than they are in other states, the rural health care organization is able to recruit doctors from other markets.

“This bill would undermine our ability to do that,” Johnson said.

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