Senate OKs bill for review panels in medical lawsuits after lively debate between doctors, lawyers, others

This story, which was published Thursday morning, has been updated with action in the full Senate.
By Melissa Patrick
Kentucky Health News

FRANKFORT, Ky. — The Senate has approved a bill that advocates say will help weed out “frivolous” medical malpractice lawsuits and speed up litigation for legitimate suits.


“Right now, Kentucky has one of the nations most litigation-friendly environments, making our commonwealth a prime and profitable target for personal injury lawyers preying upon our health care providers,” Sen. Ralph Alvarado, R-Winchester, a physician and sponsor of Senate Bill 6, told the Senate Health and Welfare Committee. Opponents disputed that claim.

The Senate passed the bill Thursday 24-12. It is not expected to pass the House.

The bill would establish panels of three medical experts, two chosen by each side and the third chosen by the other two, to review suits against health-care providers to determine if the case has merit before the lawsuit can proceed. Panel findings would be admissible in court but not legally binding.

The Republican-controlled Senate passed a very similar bill last year but it got nowhere in the Democrat-controlled House, and its prospects are similar this time. However, Wednesday’s committee meeting provided a detailed and lively explication of the issue, lasing almost two hours.

Vanessa Cantley, a Louisville personal injury attorney, told the committee that most medical malpractice cases are legitimate. She cited a Harvard University study published in the New England Journal of Medicine that concluded “portraits of a malpractice system that is stricken with frivolous litigation are overblown” and reported that 97 percent of claims for medical injury evaluated over a decade were deemed to be meritorious.

However, Michael Sutton of Louisville, a civil defense attorney, said defendants win 80 per cent of medical malpractice suits.

Cantley said there are 2,700 deaths in Kentucky each year due to purely preventable medical error, but, according to the state Department of Insurance, fewer than 500 lawsuits a year are filed by abuse and neglect victims. She spoke for the Kentucky Justice Association, formerly the Kentucky Academy of Trial Attorneys.

Alvarado and other opponents argued that Kentucky has become a haven for such lawsuits and bills like his have helped deter them. “Medical review panels are a proven solution for limiting baseless claims brought by a personal injury lawyer to ensure a faster, more efficient path for patients with legitimate claims, ” he said.

Alvarado said the state is 4,000 doctors short of its need and the legal climate in Kentucky makes it hard to recruit and retain doctors. Sen. Julie Raque Adams, R-Louisville, the committee chair, said the expansion of Medicaid in Kentucky makes it all the more important to make the state attractive to doctors. “Anytime there’s a paradigm shift, there are other policies
that  need to go along with that paradigm
shift,” she said.

Dave Adkisson, president and CEO of the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, said review panels “will stabilize our medical malpractice system and make our state more attractive” and “protect the legitimate cases while weeding out the meritless claims,” which increase costs to consumers and employers through higher premiums and defensive medicine in the form of extra medical tests.

Kentucky’s constitution bans laws that would cap damages
in lawsuits. (Care First Kentucky graphic)

Every state surrounding Kentucky offers some level of protection against medical malpractice, while Kentucky offers no legal protections for healthcare providers, according to Care First Kentucky, a business coalition supporting the bill.

Sen. Reggie Thomas, D-Lexington, a lawyer, argued that Kentucky already has laws to punish attorneys for filing frivolous cases. Alvarado said the rule isn’t used much because judges “allow a lot of latitude,” and Sutton said it is reserved for “really egregious conduct.”

Cantley argued, subtly, that courts are the refuge for patients who suffer from abuse, neglect and malpractice. She said the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services has ranked Kentucky No. 1 in nursing-home deficiencies, and argued that state boards that discipline doctors do a poor job.

The full Senate’s debate on the bill was cut short because the committee adopted a substitute version, preventing Democratic Leader Ray Jones of Pikeville, a plaintiffs’ lawyer, from offering any of his amendments, which had been drafted to the original bill. Under traditional procedures, a bill gets its required readings on days between the committee meeting and the floor vote, but in recent years Republicans have given important bills readings before committee action, allowing a vote on them the day after they pass a committee.

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