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Panel sharpens malpractice queries

Senators swear in lobbyists, lawyers and executives as they continue plowing through the malpractice morass.

Published July 15, 2003

TALLAHASSEE - At turns gruff and joking but always unwavering, members of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Monday grilled insurance executives, medical lobbyists and lawyers under oath as they sought answers in the state's medical malpractice debate.

No subpoenas have been issued yet, but all witnesses who testified Monday raised their right hand and swore or affirmed to tell "the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth." Judiciary Committee Chairman Alex Villalobos, R-Miami, swore in the witnesses.

Lawmakers are in the middle of their second special session to deal with rising medical malpractice insurance rates that are driving some doctors out of business.

"I'm hoping that the alarm will go off at any minute and I will wake up and discover I'm not here," Villalobos said.

Senators saved some of their toughest questions for insurance executives, the state officials who regulate them and the Florida Medical Association.

One of the most hard-line inquisitors was Fort Lauderdale Democrat Sen. Walter "Skip" Campbell, a lawyer, who asked a state insurance regulator whether he relied on information given by insurance companies when deciding whether to allow them to raise their rates.

Campbell wasn't pleased to learn the answer is often yes.

"So you rely on the fox to guard the henhouse," Campbell said.

Senators tried to pin down how many doctors were leaving the state, whether insurance companies actually have to pay out most of the money they put in reserves after a patient threatens to sue, and the details of a financial arrangement between the Florida Medical Association and the largest medical malpractice insurer in the state. The carrier, First Professionals Insurance Co., is endorsed by the FMA.

Senators are scheduled to continue their questioning today.

In many cases Monday they could get only shrugged shoulders. Mindful of the criminal charges they face if caught giving false testimony under oath, many witnesses refused to speculate in their answers or declined to answer.

"I feel I don't have the information to say whether there are frivolous lawsuits," said FMA executive Sandy Mortham.

Senate President Jim King heard that some witnesses had complained about the tenor of the questions.

"What I have seen so far are very good questions," said King, R-Jacksonville. "I don't think anyone in the Senate Judiciary Committee has to apologize for their behavior." No deal on a bill has been made, but Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, said recent public relations disasters among Republicans seem to have speeded up negotiations. Lee was one of several moderate Republicans criticized in an e-mail Gov. Jeb Bush sent out last week to political supporters.

"That and the lack of tolerance for disparate views are all becoming the story, not medical malpractice. There is a real concern that the political gains are being outweighed by the negative impact on our party," Lee said.

- Times staff writer Lucy Morgan contributed to this report.

[Last modified July 15, 2003, 01:33:21]

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