Doctors and hospitals in Montana will have more protection from medical malpractice lawsuits beginning July 1 under four bills signed into law last week by Gov. Brian Schweitzer.
The measures are among nine proposals before the 2005 Legislature to address the problem of skyrocketing malpractice insurance for healthcare providers. Three of the new laws were developed by the Montana Medical Association and one came from Montana hospitals.
Kurt Kubicka, M.D., legislative committee chairman for the medical association, 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.
One of the measures signed last week says that a doctor's apology or expression of sympathy, sorrow or condolence for the suffering or death of a 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 said.
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 establishes strict criteria for determining who can be considered an expert witness to testify regarding 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 him- or herself.
The fourth measure gives hospitals protection from being sued for actions of independent contractors, such as doctors or other healthcare providers who aren't hospital employees.
Schweitzer called the bills "common-sense medical malpractice reform that lawyers, hospitals and insurance companies can all agree on."
The other bills still in the legislative process deal with changing how damages are calculated in malpractice cases, requiring insurers to submit information about their business to the state insurance commissioner, limiting the 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.