By Bruce Schreiner
The Associated Press
FRANKFORT - The House passed legislation Friday aimed at providing relief to doctors from rising malpractice insurance costs.
It would create a mutual insurance authority to sell malpractice coverage. It also would set up pretrial reviews of malpractice claims with the intent of ferreting out frivolous cases.
The House debate was politically charged before a 70-19 vote that sent the measure to an uncertain future in the Senate.
Democrats said the bill would inject competition and stability into the malpractice insurance market. They said it also would make insurers accountable for rates and drive down court costs.
Many Republicans predicted the bill wouldn't solve the problem. They urged Democratic leaders to take up a Senate-passed Republican alternative that calls for a constitutional amendment.
Awards could be limited
If ratified by voters, the amendment would empower the legislature to limit awards for "noneconomic" damages - pain and suffering and punitive damages - and to institute an arbitration system.
Rep. Robin Webb, D-Grayson, challenged critics of the House bill to show that capping jury awards would lower malpractice insurance rates.
"It's a ruse," she said. "It's been a political issue. It's not about solving the problem. It's money and politics."
The malpractice issue pits some influential interest groups: the Kentucky Medical Association and Kentucky Hospital Association on one side, the Kentucky Academy of Trial Attorneys on the other.
The KMA says rising malpractice premiums are causing some doctors to stop practicing in risky specialties and prompting some to leave Kentucky altogether.
Rep. Rob Wilkey, D-Scottsville, the bill's lead sponsor, said Kentucky has more doctors per capita than surrounding states.
The House-passed bill does not include caps on damages, and it would not require a constitutional amendment.
Rep. Joe Barrows, D-Versailles, said the House bill would offer quicker relief for doctors burdened by high insurance costs. He said the Senate version seeks to help doctors at the expense of injured patients.
The House bill would allow medical review panels to screen malpractice claims and issue opinions on their merits. The opinions could be admitted at trial. Malpractice claims also would be subject to mediation.
Also, medical malpractice insurers new to Kentucky would have to file their rates with the state at least 30 days before they took effect. The filing requirement also would apply to insurers wanting to raise rates by at least 25 percent.
Republican Rep. Bob DeWeese, a physician from Louisville, pinpointed malpractice costs as a main contributor to rising health costs.
Much of the criticism focused on the proposed mutual insurance authority that would cover any Kentucky doctor. It would be self-supporting, modeled after the state-run Kentucky Employers Mutual Insurance, which sells workers' compensation coverage.
"I'm not so sure that the state of Kentucky ought to be getting into the medical malpractice insurance business," said Rep. Jim Gooch of Providence, the only Democrat to vote against the bill.
Fourteen Republicans voted for the measure.
Rep. Ron Crimm of Louisville, among the bill's opponents, said the threat of a large jury award could cause the proposed authority's reserves to be "wiped out with the very first lawsuit that comes down the pike."
Gooch said trial attorneys have refused to admit any responsibility for the rise in malpractice insurance premiums.
His comments drew a sharp rebuke from Webb, a lawyer who said her profession has been "villainized for political purposes."
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