Malpractice Award Cap Seems Doomed

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Hartford Courant (Connecticut)

A bill limiting court awards for medical pain and suffering to $250,000 will likely die because the majority of those on the state legislature’s judiciary committee feel it would do little to lower malpractice insurance costs.

Committee members listened patiently to the pros and cons of the cap backed by Gov. John G. Rowland during a public hearing Friday. In the end, however, members indicated that as proposed, the bill would not bring down doctors’ insurance rates, allow them to continue their practices or meet patients’ needs.

“There is no evidence that I can see that imposing the cap would result in insurance savings that would be passed on to doctors,” said Sen. John A. Kissel, R-Enfield. “I think we need complete reform.”

Doctors have been lobbying for the bill, claiming that limiting the pain-and-suffering damage awards would bring down malpractice insurance rates they say are driving many doctors out of business. Malpractice lawyers and patients have countered that setting a cap would be unfair to aggrieved patients, particularly women and children who may not be eligible for other types of compensation in the case of medical error.

During the hearing, several committee members said legislating insurance premiums might be a more effective way to control escalating rates without undermining the rights of patients. They cited the effectiveness of a California law, Proposition 103, which lowered insurance premiums through an approach that included a rate rollback and subsequent rate freeze.

“People in Connecticut keep saying an award cap implemented in California resulted in lower rates, but that’s not the case,” said Doug Heller of the California-based Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights. He said a 1977 award cap failed to reel in insurance premium rates, and it wasn’t until Proposition 103 was adopted years later that the state saw a significant drop in premiums.

Dr. Neil Brooks, a family physician from Vernon, argued that the cap in California was part of the overall package that lowered rates, calling it an “integral” part of any resolultion to the problem. “This is a horrible Catch-22 we are in in this state,” Brooks said. “It is a matter of public policy and if people want access to their physicians, the cap has to be part of it.”

Calling the matter “a crisis,” Tim Norbeck, executive director of the Connecticut State Medical Society, said his group would be willing to listen to alternative ideas. He was pressed by committee chairman Michael Lawlor, D-East Haven, about whether the cap idea was the only one the medical community would entertain.

“We’re willing to talk,” said a skeptical Norbeck. “If you can achieve the goals of stabilizing premiums and keeping doctors in practice, fine. But we suggest that you can’t do it without the cap.”

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