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Legislature

Hitch in malpractice deal? Bush

Two days of testimony seemed to rekindle resolve for a reform deal. But as the House and Senate began to bend, the governor refused to flinch.

By ALISA ULFERTS
Published July 16, 2003

TALLAHASSEE - House and Senate leaders neared a deal on medical malpractice Tuesday but couldn't win the approval of the one person they needed the most - Gov. Jeb Bush.

"There is no deal, rumors to the contrary," Senate President Jim King, R-Jacksonville, told reporters.

Negotiations between the House and Senate quickened the day after sworn testimony raised doubts about the depth of the problem and the governor's proposed solution.

Bush favors a strict $250,000 cap on pain and suffering awards. The Senate, which initially opposed any cap, has proposed a $500,000 cap that could rise to $6-million depending on the severity of the claim.

"The House and the Senate can agree to a resolution to this, but the agreement must be signed off on by the governor before the House of Representatives will pass it and he won't do it," said Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon.

By early Tuesday afternoon negotiators were predicting a deal as early as that evening. But then Bush returned home from a bill-signing ceremony in St. Cloud and word quickly spread through the Capitol: no deal.

"The place is alive with counteroffers," King said. "I have not talked to the governor but have talked to (House Speaker Johnnie) Byrd several times."

Byrd, who announced Monday that he will run for the U.S. Senate, issued a statement that the House is as committed as Bush to medical malpractice reform. But he also hinted that talks with the Senate were going well.

"I am encouraged by the fact that House and Senate negotiators remain in communication. I am optimistic that if we keep our focus on the best interest of all Floridians, we will reach a prompt resolution," Byrd said.

Bush spokeswoman Alia Faraj said: "With doctors leaving the state every day the stakes couldn't be higher, and the governor remains hopeful that the Senate will act in the interest of all Floridians."

The Senate Judiciary Committee spent the past two days taking sworn testimony that senators said turned the debate on its head and sped up the negotiations that led to the near deal.

Doctors' groups and insurance companies have testified before countless other committees - never under oath - that frivolous lawsuits are driving up the cost of medical malpractice insurance, prompting insurance companies to pull out and driving doctors away.

The testimony showed that while some doctors are leaving, more doctors are licensed in Florida than five years ago. And state law already forbids frivolous suits.

Meanwhile, the largest writer of medical malpractice insurance in the state testified that Florida is its most profitable market and will continue to be profitable even if the Legislature makes no changes in medical malpractice laws.

The testimony "really did away with the rhetoric," said Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Alex Villalobos, R-Miami. "The testimony that doctors are leaving the state just isn't accurate. ... The explosion of frivolous lawsuits, which is what I've been told, just isn't true."

Insurance companies settle cases they could win in court because of "bad faith" laws that govern how they treat the doctors they insure, testified Bob White, president of the First Professionals Insurance Co. Frivolous lawsuits are not to blame, he said.

"I don't think you can have a frivolous lawsuit in the state of Florida. I think Florida fixed its frivolous lawsuit problem in 1988," White testified Monday.

Florida Medical Association CEO Sandy Mortham said she wasn't in a position to say whether frivolous lawsuits caused higher insurance rates, even though the FMA has blamed such lawsuits in news releases and statements on its Web site.

The testimony prompted some senators to suggest that the Senate put all witnesses under oath, regardless of the subject matter. King said he'd think about it.

- Times staff writer Lucy Morgan contributed to this report.

[Last modified July 16, 2003, 01:33:24]


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