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    Legislature

    Senate panel approves malpractice measures

    The bill would cut insurance rates and shield emergency room doctors from lawsuits.

    ©Associated Press
    April 16, 2003


    TALLAHASSEE -- Measures that force insurance companies to cut rates for medical malpractice policies, give emergency room doctors some lawsuit immunity and push hospitals to improve care to avoid malpractice cases cleared a key Senate committee Tuesday.

    The Senate Appropriations Committee unanimously approved three bills (Committee Substitutes for SB 560, SB 562 and SB 564) aimed at addressing an increasing number of doctors who have threatened to quit practicing because they can't afford soaring malpractice insurance premiums.

    Insurers say the cost of litigation has driven up premiums; lawyers dispute that.

    The package could come up for a vote by the full Senate as early as next week. But it differs from a version the House has passed, setting up the need for a compromise before the Legislature's scheduled ending May 2.

    The Senate's solution tries to tackle the problem from three sides -- improving patient safety to cut down on malpractice incidents, providing lawsuit immunity to emergency room personnel to reduce damage payouts and forcing insurance companies to cut rates.

    In doing so, the Senate has managed to include provisions opposed by all three major interest groups in the debate.

    Companies that write malpractice insurance say the Senate's provision forcing them to roll back rates to 2002 levels will put them out of business. The bill originally would have cut their rates to 2001 levels but it was changed Tuesday to make the cut less severe.

    "If the idea is to drive the carriers out of the state, I think this bill will do that," said Mark Delegal, a lobbyist for two of the four companies left in Florida that provide malpractice insurance.

    The bill also extends broad lawsuit immunity to emergency room doctors, the same "sovereign immunity" granted to government officials. Supporters say the state requires emergency room doctors to treat patients, so they should be protected as if they are agents of the state.

    Lawyers who represent malpractice victims object. "Private doctors and private hospitals should not be getting sovereign immunity," said Neal Roth, a lobbyist for the Academy of Florida Trial Lawyers.

    And a coalition of doctors and hospitals opposes the Senate package because it leaves out a cap on some lawsuit damages that the House package includes.

    The House measure has a $250,000 cap on noneconomic -- pain-and-suffering -- damages that a jury may award.

    The Senate measure also requires hospitals to have a patient safety plan, creates a center to study incidents in which an error was committed, and encourages computerized drug ordering systems in hospitals to avoid medication errors.

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