HELENA — Physicians and lawyers disagreed on two measures to reform malpractice laws today, with doctors saying the bills would lower costs and lead to better care and attorneys claiming they would gut patients’ rights to accountability.
The first bill presented to the House Business and Labor Committee would exclude evidence given during an independent practice’s quality-assurance hearing from being used in court.
Currently, hospitals and nursing homes are protected from having such discussions about possible medical mistakes used against them legally, but practices, such as groups of orthopedic surgeons, are not protected.
Michael Brown with the Montana Medical Association said House Bill 416, by Rep. Harry Klock, R-Harlowton, would encourage private providers to thoroughly investigate mistakes or complications to ensure they are not repeated. Now, he said, physicians and others are forced to whisper about such things for fear of exposing themselves to lawsuits.
But Al Smith, a spokesman for Montana Trial Lawyers’ Association, called extending the protection a game of “hide the ball, hide the facts.”
He said the law would prevent anyone involved in the group’s quality-assurance meeting from being questioned, and it would ensure that any information unearthed remains a secret.
The other bill, House Bill 405, by Rep. Janna Taylor, R-Dayton, would protect a physician from being sued for malpractice for not ordering a test or procedure if another physician agreed the action met the standard of care.
Taylor said she brought the bill to curtail the phenomenon of “defensive medicine,” where physicians order unjustified tests or procedures to avoid being sued for negligence later.
Taylor said HB 405 would lower Montana medical costs by eliminating useless tests and thereby lower workers’ compensation insurance rates while also attracting more doctors to the state.
Robert Stears, a diagnostic radiologist from Billings, said he gets a calls from doctors far too often that end with “Bob I’m sorry I had to order this test. I know it’s going to be normal, but you know how it is.”
Stears said covering bases in his line of work often means exposing patients to undue radiation for tests that have a one-in-a-thousand probability of finding an illness.
But Helena attorney Jim Hunt said the change would end medical negligence lawsuits, no matter how valid. He argued that given the entire nation to pick from, a doctor facing a suit could easily hire another physician to agree with any action taken.
Hunt also argued that anybody could go back and alter the justification behind opting out of a procedure.
Taylor replied that electronic records are hard for doctors to alter after the fact and said the bill would not end negligence cases because patients could still appeal.
(Reporter Cody Bloomsburg can be reached at 208-816-0809 or by e-mail at email@example.com.)