Legislators Hear From Foes Of Med-Mal Proposal
Doctors, insurers join GTLA in opposing proposal to take claims out of court
A legislative hearing Tuesday to hear from opponents to a proposal to re-route medical malpractice claims from Georgia's courts to a workers' compensation-like board featured remarks from doctors' groups and insurance companies that want to keep the current system—ironic given that the proposal is supposed to help doctors by reducing claims costs and insurance premiums by moving these cases outside the traditional litigation system.
The hearing turned into a bit of a lovefest for the 2005 tort reform package, with the doctors' and insurers' representatives reporting improvements under the new regime.
"What was done by the Georgia General Assembly is working," lobbyist Arthur "Skin" Edge told a committee studying the current proposal. Edge, whose clients include proposal opponents MAG Mutual Insurance Co. and the Georgia Obstetrical and Gynecological Society, told legislators that since the passage of the 2005 legislation known as SB 3, the number of claims against doctors, the number of claims that have resulted in a payout to a plaintiff, and average physician premiums all have dropped. "If you pass this measure ... you will throw out all of those positive things," he said.
Why then, Senator Brandon Beach, R-Alpharetta, asked Edge, is Georgia losing doctors, especially to places such as Texas?
Edge replied that it was a combination of factors, one being that Texas has capped medical malpractice damages. While Texas voters authorized the caps in an amendment to the state constitution, the Georgia Supreme Court in 2010 overturned the part of SB 3 that capped pain and suffering damages in med-mal cases.
When Senator Judson Hill, R-Marietta, asked Edge what the Legislature could do to improve the situation further for patients and physicians, Edge suggested a constitutional amendment like Texas has.
"Aside from that," Hill replied, suggesting the 2005 package itself passed only narrowly and a constitutional cap wasn't in the cards.
The latest proposal, SB 141, was conceived by a group called Patients for Fair Compensation and is sponsored by Beach. It would create a system in which an injured patient would submit an application to a review board of physicians and experts who would determine whether there was an avoidable injury and award compensation based on a payment schedule. The system would be regulated by a board of 11 members—five appointed by the governor, three by the lieutenant governor and three by the speaker of the House. Edge told the senators on Tuesday that no state has adopted the proposed overhaul, saying Florida legislators considered the proposal but did not pass it.
The proponents have said the overhaul would curb unnecessary and costly medical procedures because doctors would not have to practice "defensive medicine" to avoid lawsuits. The bill also would allow more injured patients to be compensated because plaintiffs' lawyers under the current system are unlikely to take small-dollar cases. Finally, the proponents have said injured patients would be compensated faster under the new process than in conventional litigation.
In addition to MAG Mutual, the bill has drawn opposition from the Georgia Trial Lawyers Association and its frequent ideological opposite, the Medical Association of Georgia. After a lengthy hearing in March, Senate Health and Human Services Committee Chairwoman Renee Unterman, R-Buford, tabled the measure for further consideration during the 2014 session. Tuesday's hearing was one in a series on the bill.