Give patients an alternative to lengthy lawsuits
This session, the New Hampshire Legislature has a real opportunity to do something about the rising cost of health care - the number one concern of businesses large and small.Senate Bill 406 would give patients what is called an "early offer" option for resolving medical injury claims, an alternative to protracted and costly lawsuits.Patients could choose an early offer as an alternative to the current legal system. Similar to workers' compensation, they would receive compensation for lost wages (economic losses) and medical bills. They would not receive compensation for non-economic losses -- what is often termed "pain and suffering." Instead, they would receive an additional payment based on the severity of the injury to accompany the payment for economic loss. In addition, they would receive 100 percent compensation - separate from their medical injury settlement - to cover attorneys' fees.So who wins under an early offer option? Everyone.For some patients, an early offer alternative would be preferable to a lengthy lawsuit. Many patients would welcome a speedier resolution - possibly in just a few months - over the current average of nearly four years to settle a medical malpractice suit at trial. They would receive immediate payment for medical bills and lost wages and could get on with their lives.Like patients, health care providers would prefer to resolve disputes quickly and efficiently. If a mistake has been made, they want to see patients quickly and fairly compensated. They want to spend their time helping patients by practicing medicine, not participating in endless court proceedings that can result in prolonged anguish for everyone involved.Businesses of all sizes are suffocating under the weight of health insurance premiums. To the extent this bill could streamline the process for resolving medical injury claims, it would reduce the costs of litigation and help alleviate the burden of malpractice insurance and defensive medicine on the health care system.The most important point to remember about this bill is that it is voluntary. Patients may choose the early offer option or the current legal system to resolve their disputes.Providers also have a choice. If they feel the case is without merit, they may advise the patient to pursue the traditional legal system. If the latter happens, there is no higher burden of proof to win a case, as opponents have inappropriately argued. The higher burden of proof only applies if patients enter the early offer system, receive an offer from a provider and then decide to reject the offer in favor of a traditional malpractice trial, in effect "gaming" the system.The worst that could happen in passing this bill is that no one will use the early offer system. Then we've lost nothing, because medical malpractice cases will continue to proceed as they do now. However, this bill has the potential to improve significantly how certain cases are currently resolved and help all those involved - most of all patients.Jim Roche is president of the Business and Industry Association of New Hampshire.