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Malpractice debate headed for overtime

Entering the final day of a special session, big differences remain in House and Senate proposals to control doctors' insurance costs.

Published June 19, 2003

TALLAHASSEE - Lawmakers inched forward on a medical malpractice insurance solution Wednesday but seemed unlikely to pass a bill by today's midnight deadline.

Meanwhile, the state's largest medical malpractice insurer warned that legislators' attempts at compromise would not be enough to lower physicians' insurance rates.

The House and Senate worked on separate bills through the evening, with the House passing its version (HB 63B), 92-23.

If a compromise between the two chambers appears possible, a joint committee could meet as early as today to begin ironing out the differences.

The two chambers still differ on where to cap pain-and-suffering damages in medical malpractice cases, with the House favoring a $250,000 cap and the Senate a $500,000 cap with exemptions for egregious cases of medical malpractice.

"I don't contemplate that we can get out of here by Thursday at midnight," said Senate President Jim King, R-Jacksonville.

House Speaker Johnnie Byrd, R-Plant City, said his chamber's bill "is a good bill. It adds certainty to the marketplace."

Like King, Byrd doubted that lawmakers would finish on time, but said he hoped the two sides could get close enough to finish the job over the weekend, rather than start anew with yet another special session.

The state's biggest medical malpractice insurer, First Professionals Insurance Co., sent a letter to Gov. Jeb Bush, saying it would not be able to fulfill its promise to him to lower its rates by 20 percent if either the House or Senate bill were to become law. FPIC warned Bush that the bill's "bad faith" language would drive up litigation costs.

In malpractice cases, insurance companies can be sued for acting in "bad faith" by not offering to settle a case to protect a doctor from huge losses above his insurance policy limit.

Insurers like FPIC say they settle many cases for fear of being sued by their insured doctor under such a scenario.

The insurance industry wants the law to prevent insurers from being sued for bad faith if they propose to settle a case during a certain time period. Both the House and Senate are offering such a provision. But insurers say they would be forced to settle too early in the lawsuit process under the proposals.

House Democrats opposed their bill, primarily because of the $250,000 cap.

"The biggest concern I have is that worse than doing nothing is doing nothing that purports to be something," complained Rep. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach. "This bill doesn't do the one thing we had to do to assure a rollback of insurance rates."

House Democrats and Republicans alike supported a measure to limit frivolous lawsuits.

Rep. Ken Sorensen, R-Key Largo, offered the amendment, which would require the loser to pay attorney fees when judges declare the lawsuit frivolous.

"You've heard people say doctors are leaving the state," Sorensen said. "Vote for this and trial attorneys will be fleeing."

- The Associated Press contributed to this report.

[Last modified June 19, 2003, 02:02:50]

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