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Medical malpractice reform–a different approach.

The public debate over reforming the medical-malpractice legal system has long focused on extreme positions. Health-care providers and insurers call for a revamping of the entire system by capping damages and creating an administrative system of “health courts.” Victims-rights advocates, including plaintiff’s lawyers, argue that the present system works fine and no reform is necessary. It now appears that a middle ground may be emerging that can reduce litigation costs and permit a faster resolution of malpractice claims. How-by encouraging honesty by health care providers when unforeseen outcomes occur and making early settlement offers and apologizing when injuries are caused by medical negligence.

In a front-page article of the July 17, 2006 in the National Law Journal, Peter Geier reports about the idea of “full disclosure/early offer.” After correctly noting that lawsuits often result because patients and their families cannot obtain answers from their doctors, Geier notes that a number of hospital systems and insurance companies have discovered that lawsuits can be avoided by acknowledging malpractice when it occurs and promptly trying to settle the claim before any suit is filed. Hospitals employing this practice include the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, the University of Michigan Health System, Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins Medicine and Minneapolis’ Allina Hospitals & Clinics. Insurers include West Virginia Mutual Insurance of Charleston and COPIC Insurance of Denver.

The University of Michigan Health System initiated the system in 2002 and has seen claims (pre-suit notices and lawsuits) drop from 262 in August of 2001 to 114 in August of 2005 with less than 100 since that time. During that same period, the average claim processing period dropped from 20.3 months to 9.5, litigation costs were cut in half and the total reserves on medical malpractice claims were reduced by more that two-thirds. Similar finding were reported by the other hospitals. By avoiding lawsuits, the health-care providers can emphasize patient safety and better communication between the system and patients, which includes educating some patients as to why their injuries are not the result of negligence.
Plaintiff’s lawyers major concern is that patients are need not be told that they can consult with an attorney to fully protect their interests. However, the VA, which first implemented its system in the late 1980’s, tells veterans that they should seek counsel. Moreover, many of the plaintiff’s lawyers quoted in the article noted that in most instances, their clients were satisfied with the prompt resolution of their claims.

Both Illinois and Vermont has enacted legislation to create pilot programs to test various forms of “full disclosure/early offer;” Texas, Tennessee and New Jersey are also considering such legislation. On the federal level, U.S. senators Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.), are sponsoring the National Medical Error Disclosure and Compensation Act, a national version of the policy.

Source: National Law Journal