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Legislature

Battle over, lawmakers set to tidy up

After months of strife, only the formality of a final session remains for legislators to finalize a medical malpractice deal.

By ALISA ULFERTS
Published August 9, 2003

TALLAHASSEE - Lawmakers will return Tuesday for their third and, they hope, last special session on medical malpractice.

Amid much handshaking and backslapping, House and Senate leaders stood shoulder to shoulder with Gov. Jeb Bush Friday to announce the agreement all sides made the day before.

"This was not an easy thing. We started very far apart," Bush said.

"I'm here today to say thank you to the Florida Legislature for a job well done," Bush said. Senate President Jim King even commemorated the end of what has been Republican intertribal warfare by presenting Bush with a peace pipe.

"Now we are all on the same reservation," King joked.

If the compromise bill doesn't lower medical malpractice insurance rates for doctors, whose practices recently have suffocated under the weight of staggering increases, lawmakers could have to tweak the bill again next year, several said.

"Today is only the beginning," said House Speaker Johnnie Byrd.

Under the plan, awards for pain and suffering would be capped for doctors at $500,000, with $1-million possible if the patient sues more than one doctor or the malpractice results in death or a permanent vegetative state.

Hospitals and other facilities would see a $750,000 cap, which could double to $1.5-million if more than one facility is sued or if the malpractice results in death or a permanent vegetative state.

Emergency room doctors, and other doctors called in to consult in emergency cases, have a much smaller cap, $150,000. That could double to $300,000 if more than one doctor is sued.

About 20 percent of medical malpractice cases would be eligible for the emergency room cap, lawmakers said.

The cap was the single most contentious part of the debate. Bush and Byrd said early on that they would accept nothing more than a $250,000 cap, while King said he opposed any cap.

So who won? Both sides compromised, but the House claimed it got more than the Senate.

House staff members handed out a pie chart that showed how much each each side won - 41 percent was part of the original House bill, 33 percent from the original Senate plan and 26 percent was worked out by negotiators from both chambers.

"It is a bill where everyone has won some and everyone has lost some," King said. "In the Senate this bill will not be as easy to pass as some may think." Other key points in the bill include:

Insurance companies have more time - 210 days instead of the current 90 days - to decide whether to settle a case or take it to court. That gives insurance companies more time to decide if a case has merit and should be settled or if it is baseless and should be fought in court, lawmakers said.

Insurance companies would have to freeze their rates at the level they were July 1, 2003 for six months. Beginning January 1, they face tougher standards in getting the state to approve a rate increase.

Hospitals and doctors will be required to notify patients when they have been harmed, and hospital medical boards can't be sued by the doctors they discipline.

The state will improve the way it gathers information about medical malpractice. Frustrated by the conflicting testimony offered by different interests, the Senate Judiciary Committee placed witnesses under the oath.

The next session hasn't begun, but already critics are lining up and likely will spend the weekend drafting amendments to change what they don't like.

Indeed, just hours after the announcement, Senate Democrats released a statement saying the bill did little to bring insurance relief to doctors. The minority party isn't needed to pass the bill in the House, where Byrd commands a wide majority. But King faces a much stiffer fight in the Senate, and needs every vote he can get.

"This legislation delivers relief to the insurance industry without asking it to make sacrifices such as those being required of patients, attorneys and physicians," said Senate Democratic Leader Ron Klein, D-Boca Raton.

"And it does nothing to bring immediate rate relief to Florida's doctors. Without that relief, we cannot support this legislation," Klein added.

Former House Speaker John Thrasher, who represents a coalition of healthcare interests including the Florida Hospital Association, said the bill was better than nothing.

But the Academy of Florida Trial Lawyers is predicting a constitutional challenge to the bill after it passes.

"It's guaranteed that the statute will be challenged," said academy past president Neal Roth. But it won't be the academy that challenges the bill, Roth said. It will be a person injured by malpractice.

"That person doesn't exist yet," Roth said.

[Last modified August 9, 2003, 02:17:42]


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