Medical-review panel law described as ‘imperfect,’ with only 11% of 531 claims assigned to a panel after one year on the books

A Republican-backed law that established medical-review panels to screen lawsuits against health-care providers before they can proceed Is now a year old, and things have not gone exactly as proponents expected, Andrew Wolfson reports for the Louisville Courier Journal.

Just 11 percent of 531 claims have been assigned to a panel, findings have been issued in only 3 percent of the cases, and another 5 percent were withdrawn, settled or dismissed, Wolfson reports.

Proponents of the law, largely nursing homes, physicians, hospitals and others who claim to be subjected to frivolous lawsuits, have said the review panels would decrease the number of frivolous lawsuits and cut the cost of liability insurance for providers. Gov. Matt Bevin’s administration has called the panels the “first step toward tort reform.”

Opponents, including a Frankfort judge who found the law unconstitutional, say it unduly restricts people’s access the the courts and is an infringement on the right to trial by jury.

“Even lawyers who defend doctors, hospitals and nursing homes say the process so far has been ineffective,” Wolfson reports.

“I’m not going to deny that the numbers aren’t good and it is an imperfect law,” Betsy Johnson, president of the Kentucky Association of Health Care Facilities, which lobbies for nursing homes, told Wolfson.

And lawyers who represent injured people are even more critical.

“The delays aren’t fair to the citizens of Kentucky, many of whom may have been catastrophically injured or killed by negligence and whose families may need resolution of their claim in order to survive,” Louisville attorney Hans Poppe told Wolfson.

Others said the law needs more time.

“Any major policy change like the medical review panel process certainly takes time to implement, and it was expected that there would be hiccups,” said Patrick Padgett, executive vice president of the Kentucky Medical Association, told Wolfson.

Franklin Circuit Judge Phillip Shepherd ruled last October that the law violated 13 sections of the Kentucky Constitution, but it has been allowed to remain in effect while his ruling was appealed.

“The effect of the medical review panel process is not the reduction of frivolous negligence claims, but rather, the erection of barriers to the court system,” Shepherd wrote. “Those that cannot afford the additional delays and costs should not be prevented from pursuing their constitutional right to a ‘remedy by due course of law.’ ”

The appeal was argued this week and a ruling is expected in a couple of months, Wolfson reports in a separate article that details the case and includes comments from the opposing briefs.

Under the law, all claims against health-care providers must be submitted to a medical review panel  to determine its merit unless both sides agree to bypass the panel to take the case directly to court.

The panel is made up of a lawyer who serves as the non-voting chairman and three health-care professionals who determine if the suit has merit. The decision of the panel isn’t binding, and claimants can still file suit even if the panel rules against them or issues no finding after nine months. However, the opinion can be used in court and the panelist called to testify.

The law includes lawsuits that involve physicians, hospitals, nursing homes, dietitians, podiatrists, EMS providers, dentists, dental hygienists, social workers, medical laboratories and speech language pathologists, Wolfson reports.

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