Malpractice panels — the solution du jour?

In the most recent legislative session, one of the topics that put New Hampshire lawmakers through the wringer was getting a handle on the rising cost of medical malpractice insurance premiums.

The debate over malpractice premiums is being played out across the country, and it almost always pits doctors – who blame the rising premiums on large lawsuit awards – against lawyers, who insist that such awards are not unwarranted, nor are they usually excessive.

The battle raged for years in New Hampshire, with little accomplished by the medical community in efforts that it said would control those malpractice premium costs. Until this year, that is, when lawmakers approved the formation of pretrial screening panels, which proponents insist will help limit those premium increases.

Under the new law, a panel made up of a judge, a lawyer and a doctor will review malpractice cases before they go to trial. The panel will weigh evidence and testimony from witnesses. If the panel is unanimous in feeling the case is a weak one, and the case continued to trial, the panel’s finding would be presented to the jury.

Whether or not the idea works remains to be seen, although there are mixed results from Maine, where such a screening system has been in place for some 20 years. But if the goal is to control the rising cost of premiums, a recent study casts doubt on how effective screening panels actually will be.

The study, released by the Center for Justice and Democracy, a consumer advocacy group in New York, finds that from 2000 to 2004, net claims for medical malpractice paid by 15 leading insurance companies have remained flat over the last five years. At the same time, net premiums have surged 120 percent.

And, according to the study, the increase in premiums collected by those 15 insurance companies was 21 times the increase in the claims they paid.

The study looked at the filings medical malpractice insurers made with state regulators over the period.

To top it off, according to data compiled by the trade group that represents physician-owned insurers, 70 percent of malpractice cases closed in 2003 were dismissed, 24 percent were settled, 5 percent were tried and found in favor of the defendant and 0.8 percent were settled in favor of the plaintiff. That’s right – 5.8 percent of all malpractice cases wind up going to the jury – and eight-tenths of one percent are decided in the plaintiff’s favor.

Food for thought, at the very least.

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