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Press Release

    At the Assembly - Bills To Change Malpractice Rules Debate

    05/21/2004

    Excerpts from the Providence Journal

    “Would legislation changing the procedures for medical-malpractice suits stop premiums from soaring and rescue Rhode Island from a ‘crisis’ of fleeing doctors?

    Or would such bills merely curtail consumers' rights without touching the core problem of "unfair" practices and high profits by insurance companies?

    Those were the questions before the House Judiciary Committee last night, as it considered several bills involving medical malpractice. Predictably, doctors, hospitals and defense lawyers argued for the bills while consumer advocates and trial lawyers opposed them.”

    […]

    “Although several bills were on the roster, most of the testimony focused on a bill supported by the Rhode Island Medical Society that would reduce the 12-percent interest rate on malpractice payouts, require an expert to certify that a case has a merit before it is filed, require that a suit involving children be filed within three years of the child's 8th birthday (currently the statute of limitation starts at age 18), and impose other measures intended to speed the process.

    A bill submitted on behalf of Governor Carcieri contains similar provisions, plus a cap on malpractice awards for pain and suffering. But there was little discussion of the hot issue of caps yesterday.

    The evening was spent alternating between conflicting testimony.

    Sen. Joseph M. Polisena, D-Johnston, a sponsor of the legislation and a committee member, repeatedly said doctors are leaving the state because of high malpractice premiums.

    ‘If we continue to ignore the problem - and I think it's a crisis -- physicians will continue to leave the state and we won't have enough doctors,’ Polisena said.”

    But Max Wistow, a prominent plaintiff's lawyer in malpractice cases, presented data indicating that the number of doctors in Rhode Island is actually increasing. Dr. Tilak K. Verma, the medical society president, said those numbers were questionable because it's not clear how many were residents or doctors in administrative positions. But Verma offered no hard data showing that doctors are leaving.

    Jeffrey Grybowski, Carcieri's policy director, said the size of malpractice settlements and judgments had doubled over the last seven or eight years.”

    […]

    “’The other part of the problem," Wistow [a trial lawyer] said, ‘is that doctors have chosen to protect each other in ways that are scandalous.’ He said that in Rhode Island, 4.8 percent of doctors were responsible for 52.7 percent of payouts. No one goes after those doctors, he said.

    But the medical society's Verma said that many of the supposed ‘bad apples’ are some of the state's best doctors, who happen to work in high-risk specialties where occasional bad outcomes are inevitable. The medical liability system, he said, is ‘a social-support system, supported by doctors, for people with disappointing outcomes.’

    The medical society bill calls for a reduction in the 12-percent interest rate on judgments. The interest starts accruing when a malpractice suit is filed. The society asserts that this high rate encourages plaintiffs to drag out proceedings.”

    […]

    “Arthur J. Sampson, president of Newport Hospital and chairman of the Hospital Association of Rhode Island, said his hospital has to hire its own physicians because the doctors can't make it in private practice. ‘The medical liability crisis is a real threat to access to care,’ Sampson said. ‘We don't know where our physicians are going to come from three to five years from now.’

    Polisena asked him if any of his doctors have left.

    ‘I haven't had physicians leave,’ Sampson said. ‘I have physicians talking about leaving.’

    Louis R. Giancola, president of South County Hospital, said his hospital had to hire a surgeon to replace one who quit, and picked up the cost of an obstetrician's malpractice insurance to keep her from leaving when her rates increased dramatically. The hospital's own malpractice insurance went from $125,000 to $1 million in a few years, despite not losing or settling a single case, he said. ‘We want to get those dollars into health care,’ Giancola said.

    The House Judiciary Committee heard testimony on identical bills last month, but has yet to act on them.”