The Wyoming Legislature on Wednesday voted to give doctors what they have been seeking for years: a proposed constitutional amendment that would allow caps on malpractice damage awards.
The House voted 48-12 and the Senate 21-9 in favor of House/Senate Joint Resolution 1003, the key measure of this week's special session on malpractice insurance costs.
Slight differences between the two chambers will have to be worked out before the measure is sent to Gov. Dave Freudenthal, who supports the measure.
"The people of the state of Wyoming will consider that we have failed if we do not allow them a vote on their constitution," state Rep. Mike Baker (R-Thermopolis) said, arguing on behalf of the resolution.
Rep. Wayne Johnson (R-Cheyenne), who settled out of court after losing his 17-year-old daughter on the operating table in 1987, argued against caps.
"We're taking the only level playing field left in our society, the courts, and we're tilting it," he said. "We're tilting it in favor of the insurance companies. ... All we're doing is something for their bottom line."
The resolution would allow voters to decide in November whether to change the state constitution by letting the Legislature place limits on noneconomic damage awards such as for pain and suffering and loss of enjoyment of life. Economic awards for lost wages, medical expenses, care-taking and punitive damages would not be affected.
A two-thirds majority was needed in each chamber to send the measure to the ballot box. The House reached the threshold by eight votes. The Senate had one more vote than necessary.
A similar measure was narrowly defeated less than five months ago during the budget session, but a widening shortage of doctors and the pending pull-out of the state's largest malpractice insurance provider prompted many lawmakers to change their minds.
Supporters of caps on damage awards believe such limits will stem rising malpractice insurance costs, which are driving some doctors to retire early or leave Wyoming, and further reducing options for patients in a state that already had few doctors. Wyoming ranks 49th of the 50 states and District of Columbia in its percentage of doctors, according to legislative staff.
Opponents say caps will infringe upon the rights of patients who are victims of extreme doctor errors. They also cite studies that fail to substantively link lawsuit limits and lower malpractice rates in states that have enacted caps.