Thursday, February 5, 2015

‘Medical review panel’ bill clears state Senate committee

FRANKFORT – A state Senate committee approved a bill on Wednesday that would establish an independent panel to review potential medical malpractice lawsuits.

Senate Bill 6, sponsored by Sen. Ralph Alvarado, R-Winchester, would create a 3-member independent panel of medical experts to review claims of medical malpractice before a lawsuit can be brought in circuit court. Supporters of the measure, including many healthcare organizations, say the bill will reduce the number of meritless cases and the time and money medical providers must use to fight the claims, while bolstering legitimate suits.

 “One of the reasons I ran for office is because of this very issue – the current legal climate when it comes to healthcare,” said Alvarado, who is a medical doctor, in his testimony before the Senate Standing Committee on Health and Welfare. “The situation in Kentucky is toxic. We feel we need to make some advancement in tort reform to help maintain … the level of care our patients need.”

He said a litigious climate is discouraging doctors from establishing practices in Kentucky.

Those opposing the measure, however, are concerned the added step of the review could hinder lawsuits for patients who have been abused, neglected or received inadequate care. 

Trial lawyer Vanessa B. Cantley of Louisville testified against SB 6.

“A Harvard University study, not paid for by trial lawyers, published in The New England Journal of Medicine, concluded portraits of a malpractice system that is stricken with frivolous litigation are overblown,” she said. “The data tells us that medical negligence lawsuits in this state comprise of less than one half of 1 percent of all civil cases. That’s the data.”

Sen. Reginald Thomas, D-Lexington, questioned why medical review panels are needed since judges can already sanction lawyers for bringing frivolous suits. In addition, he said civil damages could be imposed against lawyers who bring those frivolous suits.

Alvarado defended medical review panels to the committee.

 “This process does not create additional costs for patients or their families,” he said. “This process does not bind a jury from determining findings of fact and conclusion of law. This process does not create an additional layer between a citizen and the courts.”

The General Assembly has considered bills in previous years that would require claims to be heard by medical review panels for an unbinding opinion before proceeding to court. A 2013 bill applied only to nursing homes. The measure was expanded the following year to all health care providers.

 SB 6 now goes to the full Senate for further consideration.