Sticking It To Doctors And Patients

Larry Price
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Wednesday - May 03, 2006
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One of the truly interesting things about our legislative process is how certain individuals can disregard an overwhelming amount of strong and convincing evidence from highly credible experts and community leaders. When this happens it is a sad testimony to the lack of a balanced Legislature.

A good example is the legislative progress of SB 3279, SD2, HD 1, a bill proposed by Gov. Linda Lingle to address the reform of Hawaii’s medical malpractice insurance. The governor correctly points out that rising medical malpractice insurance costs are forcing doctors to retire early, or close their practices - which leaves residents in danger of not receiving proper emergency care. The need is great, and medical professionals have testified over and over about the high cost of practicing medicine in Hawaii.

From a patient’s point of view, it’s scary to have their doctors closing up shop not because they are guilty of malpractice, but because they can’t afford the cost of the malpractice insurance.

There was hope something could be done to help the medical profession - after all, the Legislature has come to the aid of others with a shortage of affordable insurance needed to do business, specifically with worker’s compensation, and hurricane and flood insurance.

As it turns out the Legislature was well aware of the need expressed by the medical profession. A bill was introduced and something strange happened - the bill got held up in the House Judiciary by the committee chairperson, state Rep. Sylvia Luke, who has refused to have a hearing on the bill. The legislative process understands the possibility of this happening from time to time and allows the members of the Legislature to recall a bill out of committee. To no one’s surprise, the motion to recall the bill failed to pass. The roll call vote was 15 votes “Aye,” 33 “No” with three Excused. The House Democrats rejected the motion, saying it was too limited and did not have enough support. And with the legislative session ending soon, it is unlikely the measure will be passed this year - or may never be passed - under present circumstances.

The Hawaii Medical Association, a statewide organization of physicians and the Hawaii affiliate of the American Medical Association, challenged Luke in a paid advertisement pointing out a possible justification for her reluctance to allow the bill to reach the floor for an up or down vote. The advertisement noted that Luke works for one of the state’s largest plaintiff attorney firms, and she’s received large contributions from plaintiff attorneys.

On the surface this seems to have become an issue of doctors vs. lawyers, but it’s not. This bill is about protecting patients.

This is not to say when medical malpractice occurs a lawsuit is expected. But there’s evidence that some of the awards from overly empathetic juries have created a more serious problem.

Saving lives is a risky business. Lower medical malpractice insurance premiums will guarantee patients in Hawaii will not have to fly in a specialist to perform risky surgeries. A limit on non-economic damages and attorneys’ fees is a reasonable solution.

Maybe the Legislature just needs more doctors and fewer attorneys among its membership.

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