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    A Times Editorial

    Malpractice dud

    The governor's malpractice task force did very little to offer any constructive solutions to the problem but offered up some bad ones.

    © St. Petersburg Times
    published February 9, 2003

    The medical and insurance lobbies are delighted, as they expected to be, with the findings of the governor's malpractice task force. For everyone else who cares seriously about the issue, the report is a dud. The panel turned out to be little more than an echo chamber for too many bad ideas and too few good ones.

    One of the worst of them is the simplistic notion that nothing but a $250,000 limit on non-economic damages will deliver Florida doctors from high insurance premiums. Tort reform alone will not fix the problem, although it is worth considering as part of a package that includes concessions from insurers and medical professionals. If even the insurance industry promises no near-term rate relief, why should the governor and the Legislature -- or the doctors themselves -- believe in it? That rates are lower in California, which has such a cap, proves nothing. California's average premiums are still higher than those of 10 states that don't arbitrarily restrict the rights of injured patients.

    To its credit, the task force did propose some overdue measures to give the medical licensing boards more power to discipline errant doctors and to improve safety procedures in hospitals. But these came with the astonishing suggestion that all first offenses, no matter how serious, should be treated as "nondisciplinary" and withheld from national data banks. And, of course, from the public, too. The report proposed nothing to lift the secrecy that shrouds all reports and investigations that end short of the filing of formal charges.

    The task force also rejected a common-sense suggestion that the state publish a "report card " to tell patients what they should want to know -- data such as infection and mortality rates -- before entrusting their lives to a particular hospital. Instead, the task force recommended lamely that the Legislature tell the Agency for Health Care Administration "to determine if it is feasible . . ."

    The task force was most disappointing in its willingness to take at face value what the insurance companies say. This is understandable, given that the panel had no staff of its own, no subpoena power, and no time to do much more than mull over a torrent of testimony and regurgitate some findings. This explains, but does not justify, why insurance reform is the last chapter, and an insubstantial one at that, in the 343-page report. The panel apparently did not undertake to ask, much less answer, whether doctors who practice carefully are being overcharged for the sake of multiple offenders. One of the changes it did propose would actually hurt doctors (while helping the insurance industry) by pulling the teeth of the law that makes companies liable beyond policy limits for refusing to settle cases when the evidence clearly implies that they should.

    It's sad to have to say it, but the task force did nothing that the Legislature's committees couldn't have done for themselves. Its prestigious cast of membership -- five present or former university presidents -- supposedly pins a blue ribbon on the conclusions. One is left to wonder whether any of those universities would have accepted a Ph.D. candidate's dissertation based on so little independent research.

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