Medical malpractice bill would harm rural areas

By The Denver Post

We’re troubled by a bill pending in the state Senate that would raise the ceiling on medical malpractice awards — while boosting premiums on malpractice insurance and possibly leading to reduced health care services in already underserved rural areas of Colorado.

Senate Bill 164 by Senate President Peter Groff, D-Denver, would raise the ceiling on “non-economic” damages in such lawsuits from the current limit of $300,000 to a new, inflation-adjusted level of about $462,000.

If that’s all the measure did, we could live with it — since Groff’s bill doesn’t increase the nominal ceiling on malpractice awards of all kinds from its current $1 million level. But the measure goes on to create a new class of “economic damages” for disfigurement and impairment — issues currently classified as “non-economic damages” along with pain and suffering.

Who cares which category such damages are classified in? Well, the existing law limits economic damages to lost wages and medical costs — and allows awards for those damages to exceed the $1 million cap if they can be justified by clear and convincing evidence. Non-economic damages, in contrast, are limited to a maximum of $500,000 — and cannot be used to pierce the cap.

Thus, a patient who received $500,000 for lost wages, $500,000 for medical costs and $500,000 for a disfiguring scar under current law would receive a total of $1 million — because the scar is a “non-economic” loss that can’t be used to pierce the cap. Classifying that same scar as an “economic” loss would raise the same award to a total of $1.5 million.

That would be good news for our hypothetical plaintiff. But doctors warn that the risk of much higher jury awards would trigger an increase in malpractice insurance premiums. Such a hike could make it even harder to provide adequate medical care in rural Colorado, which is already short of doctors.

SB 164 has been repeatedly laid over on the Senate calendar this week, presumably because Groff doesn’t have the necessary 18 votes to pass it. We’d thus urge Groff to accept an offer from the Colorado Medical Society to appoint a committee so the doctors, lawyers, health care providers and other interested parties can explore ways to reduce the risks of such damaging medical errors as well as how to fairly compensate victims.

Gov. Bill Ritter already has launched a commendable effort to bring business leaders, health care providers, consumers, insurance companies and government officials together in a drive to reduce waste and improve efficiency in our existing health care systems while trimming costs and improving health care.

The medical malpractice issue should be considered within that overall reform effort, to ensure that rising premiums don’t harm citizens in rural Colorado.
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