Doctors and hospitals in Montana will have more protection from medical malpractice lawsuits beginning July 1 under four bills signed into law late Monday by Gov. Brian Schweitzer.
The measures are among nine proposals before the 2005 Legislature intended to address the problem of skyrocketing malpractice insurance for healthcare providers.
Three of the new laws were developed by the medical association and one came from Montana hospitals.
Kurt Kubicka, M.D., legislative committee chairman for the MMA, said the entire package of legislation is critical to doctors faced with rising insurance rates and a shrinking number of companies willing to sell them malpractice coverage.
He said half a dozen insurers have stopped doing business in Montana in recent years and the two remaining have boosted premiums 50% in the past two years. For some specialties, the rates have doubled, he said. Some physicians have to pay $80,000 a year, Kubicka added.
That expense is passed on to patients and is one of the reasons for rising healthcare costs, but the price of insurance takes another toll as well, he said.
"We're to the point where physicians change practices or quit altogether when malpractice costs become prohibitive," Kubicka said.
That results in a shortage of doctors in certain fields such as obstetrics, trauma, neurosurgery and orthopedics, especially in rural areas of Montana, he said.
One of the measures signed Monday says that a doctor's apology or expression of sympathy, sorrow or condolence for the suffering or death of patient cannot be used against the physician in a malpractice claim.
"Physicians have been reluctant or wary of giving expressions of sympathy out of concern that those might be used as an admission of having made an error," Kubicka explained.
Another bill protects a doctor from being sued for medical mistakes made by someone else involved in a patient's care, but over whom the doctor has no direct supervision. Kubicka said one example would be a pharmacy dispensing the wrong medication.
The third bill puts in place strict criteria for determining who can be considered an expert witness to testify about the proper standard of medical care in a malpractice case. Kubicka noted that the requirements apply to experts used by both the person filing the suit and the doctor defending himself against allegations.
The fourth measure gives hospitals protection from being sued for actions of independent contractors, such as doctors or other healthcare providers who are not hospital employees.
In signing the bills, Schweitzer called them "common-sense medical malpractice reform that lawyers, hospitals and insurance companies can all agree on. They help ensure that our family doctors will continue to choose to do business in Montana."
The other five bills still in the legislative process include ones changing how damages are calculated in malpractice cases, requiring insurers to submit information about their business to the state insurance commissioner, limiting liability of a doctor performing an independent third-party medical exam, and creating an insurance safety net for doctors should the two remaining malpractice insurers leave the state.