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    Malpractice reform takes back seat to budget

    Senators pass three bills, but budget work might slow accord with the House.

    By ALISA ULFERTS, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published April 25, 2003

    TALLAHASSEE - The state Senate passed a package of medical malpractice bills Thursday aimed at lowering insurance rates, tracking medical errors and granting emergency medical workers immunity from lawsuits.

    But a final agreement with the House appeared tangled up in the impasse over the state budget, with House Speaker Johnnie Byrd insisting on a spending deal first.

    "We need to do the budget. All the rest we can take up later," Byrd said.

    Doctors and hospitals across the state have been staggering under the weight of growing medical malpractice liability insurance premiums. Some have closed their doors or stopped offering high-risk services such as obstetrics.

    Most of the fight over medical malpractice has centered on the $250,000 cap on pain-and-suffering lawsuit awards that doctors say they need and that Byrd and Gov. Jeb Bush have insisted upon. But caps got a chilly reception in the Senate and are not in its package.

    Two of the Senate's three bills passed 36-1. The third passed 34-6.

    The votes now mean the Senate can start ironing out differences between its medical malpractice package and the bill the House passed several weeks ago. The Senate bill does not cap jury awards, and the House does not roll back insurance rates. The Senate also grants some immunity from lawsuits to doctors caring for patients in emergencies. It also limits hospitals' liability for emergency room mistakes to $2.5-million.

    The Senate measures would require insurance companies to reduce malpractice policy rates more than 20 percent to where they were in 2002. "If there's one piece of the medical malpractice problem that needs to be passed, this is it," said Sen. Walter "Skip" Campbell, D-Tamarac.

    The Senate's bill also gives doctors more flexibility in establishing self-insurance funds and requires insurance companies to give 60 days' notice of a rate increase.

    "This will drive down medical malpractice rates immediately," said Sen. Burt Saunders, R-Naples.

    Both the House and Senate bills prohibit insurance companies from earning excessive profits.

    The House doesn't cap economic damages, such as lost wages, but does cap pain-and-suffering awards in all medical malpractice lawsuits.

    Under the Senate proposal, victims of emergency room malpractice could get up to $100,000 from doctors and $2.5-million from the hospital, and the rest they would have to request from the Legislature. Those numbers apply to all damages, not just noneconomic ones.

    Sen. Anna Cowin, R-Leesburg, said forcing plaintiffs to collect from the state will cost too much.

    "These bills are going to cost the state of Florida. We are just making a deeper hole for the state of Florida," Cowin said.

    Saunders said there could be some circumstances in which $2.5-million is not enough to cover the lifelong needs of a child victim of medical malpractice in an emergency room. In such a case, the child's parents could ask for more from the state. Doing nothing risks losing more trauma centers, Saunders said.

    "But the issue is what are we going to do to make sure we have emergency room physicians (who are) willing to practice?" Saunders asked.

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