2010-09-23 / Front Page

Handlin urges action on medical malpractice bill

State losing doctors due to premiums, legal exposure
BY JACQUELINE HLAVENKA
Staff Writer

MIDDLETOWN — In an effort to keep doctors from leaving New Jersey, local officials are supporting an Assembly bill that proposes reforms for medical malpractice actions.

The bill, known as A-1982, was introduced on Feb. 8 and updated on Sept. 14. The proposed legislation would prevent insurance carriers from raising premiums unless a physician is found liable of a medical malpractice claim, as well as other revisions to the laws governing medical malpractice lawsuits.

“Today, if a doctor is sued, his or her insurance premium can go up immediately whether or not he or she is accused of wrongdoing … just being dragged into court can mean your insurance premiums go up,” said Assemblywoman Amy Handlin (R-13th District), a co-sponsor of A- 1982, in an interview. “From the perspective of patients, medical bills end up reflecting the fact that doctors are practicing defensive medicine. They have to order tests and procedures that they may not believe are absolutely necessary for their patients, but their concern is if they don’t order them, they will be dragged into court.”

The bill, discussed at the state’s Assembly Health and Senior Services Committee on June 10, is a proposal to address health care reform on a statewide level, as the ratio of doctors to patients has decreased across New Jersey.

“There’s been a debate about national health care reform, where here in New Jersey we have a homegrown crisis,” Handlin said. “Our state is losing doctors at an alarming rate. To a significant extent, they [doctors] are leaving because of their malpractice insurance premiums and legal exposure that is so enormous that the practice of many medical specialties is really untenable. Doctors are terrified of being sued for trivial reasons, that makes it almost impossible for them to practice.”

To achieve these reforms, the bill proposes revisions to concerns of liability and standards of care, requiring that a provider have a relationship with a patient who is filing suit. The affidavit must state the care, skill or knowledge used in the medical treatment based on objective scientific evidence.

The bill also revises the time limit within which a patient can file a suit. Under A-1982, a malpractice action against a health care provider must be executed within two years after the patient discovers the injury, but no more than four years after the date of the alleged malpractice act.

The legislation also requires that physicians and health care professionals providing expert testimony must be licensed in New Jersey, as opposed to the current requirement that the doctor or professional be licensed in the U.S.

Economic factors, such as cost of living and local communities, were also brought into consideration when drafting the bill, including the physician’s ability to document potential economic losses. According to A-1982, every claim or demand filed against an insured physician for damages in excess of $100,000 can submit a detailed statement seeking relief.

The largest economic reform, Handlin said, is that an insurer cannot increase medical malpractice premiums based on a claim alone, which can cause doctors to leave the state and practice elsewhere, thus resulting in a loss of jobs and resources for New Jersey residents.

“When you are living in a state like ours, where the cost of living is very high, and at the same time you are forced to pay a malpractice insurance premium in the six figures, that is not unusual,” she said. “If you get sued, you could lose your livelihood. When your skills are so much in demand in other states, it becomes an economic decision. What doctor wants to have to make every medical decision looking over their shoulder at a hypothetical jury decision?”

Handin explained that specialists like neurosurgeons and gynecologists tend to carry the highest insurance premiums, and the bill, if passed, can help provide malpractice safeguards for doctors.

“It reduces the likelihood of frivolous lawsuits,” Handlin said. “The way you get at the premiums is by reducing the number of frivolous lawsuits. It would relieve the pressure on doctors to practice medicine because they are afraid of being sued.”

Several organizations are supporting the bill, including the Medical Society of New Jersey, the Monmouth-Ocean Medical Society and the New Jersey Chapter of the American College of Surgeons.

“I view this as the most important [health care reform] of all, because obviously we need to make medical care more affordable. But regardless of how affordable health care becomes, if New Jersey residents don’t have access to doctors, then we’ve gained nothing,” Handlin said.

The Assembly Health and Senior Services Committee has not taken a formal vote on the bill.

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