Doctors for Sensible Lawsuit Reform filed documents with the Washington Secretary of State's office to begin an citizen's initiative that ultimately could result in a voter referendum on a proposed, physician-centric tort reform law, according to Maureen Callaghan, M.D., chairman of the executive committee of the Washington State Medical Association.
The association is bankrolling the reform committee carrying the initiative.
Under state law, the physicians' group will need 197,734 signatures from registered voters on a petition by the end of December to force consideration of the proposed legislation when the state legislature reconvenes early next year, Callaghan said.
The Republican-controlled state Senate approved tort reform legislation this past session, Callaghan said, but the Democratic-controlled House bottled up the bill in committee, she said.
Washington is on the AMA list of 20 crisis states and the anecdotes reported by Callaghan will sound familiar to physicians nationally who have followed the current medical malpractice debate, including soaring medical malpractice insurance premiums and reports of physicians leaving the state as a result.
"All of us have seen increases of at least in the neighborhood of 15% and it?s been going up every year," said Callaghan, a neurologist in Olympia. "There were four neurosurgeons practicing in Olympia until January until one of them got his bill and he moved out. Now, one day our to four, we don?t have coverage for neurosurgery."
Callaghan said polls report 72% of state residents support some form of malpractice tort reform, so the petitioners are confident they?ll garner the needed signatures.
"We?re trying to do something to get the attention of our legislature," Callaghan said. "We've had good support in the Senate, but the House has been obstructionist and not allowed the bill to go to the floor for a vote."
She said the group has been negotiating with legislators for several years and raised the cap on non-economic damages in their proposed bill from $250,000 to $350,000 with a maximum outlay of $1,050,000 for three defendants or more. The measure proposes no caps on economic losses, guarantees the provision of payments over time rather than in one lump, allows for a voluntary arbitration process, strengthens mediation process and provides for proportionate share payments for damages based on degree of fault, she said.
If the petitioners are successful, the proposed bill will be brought to the legislature, whose members can pass it, amend it or ignore it. In the latter two instances, however, the petitioners' bill will go before voters on the November 2005 ballot. In the event the legislature amends the petitioners' bill, both versions will go before the voters.
The initiative now heads to the attorney general for drafting of the summary and title that go on the form used to get signatures. A public review and comment period, including possible judicial appeal, could delay the start of the signature-gathering phase until August.