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Tort reform fight intensifies

Business and medical groups are continuing their push for malpractice reforms, releasing a report Thursday that claims Washington laws – when compared to those in Idaho – allow big jury awards to the detriment of health care providers.

The report, a collaboration of the Spokane Area Chamber of Commerce and conservative think tank Washington Policy Center, found that without a cap on awards and other changes, rising malpractice premiums will drive more doctors out of state. The problem in Washington has been labeled a “crisis” by the American Medical Association.

The fight over tort reforms pits doctors and hospitals against lawyers and patients with injury claims.

While both sides say rising insurance costs are troublesome, the Washington State Trial Lawyers say the medical community needs to address the serious issue of a small proportion of doctors who repeatedly offer poor, injurious care to patients.

Each year there are between 920 and 2,048 deaths in Washington that are due to preventable medical errors. Instituting a cap will not help, nor will putting more burdens on patients, the attorney group says.

Both sides are putting the changes to voters this fall in the form of competing initiatives.

At a Thursday press conference, report author Amy Johnson said that since 1996, average jury verdicts in Washington have increased 68 percent and settlements have climbed 53 percent. The number of verdicts in excess of $1 million has increased tenfold.

Mike Wilson, president of Sacred Heart Medical Center, said malpractice insurance premiums for the hospital have climbed 328 percent since 2000.

Hospitals are struggling to offset such increases that have also hit doctors and clinics.

Such costs suppress doctor recruitment, Wilson said, adding that 44 percent of hospitals in Washington are struggling to recruit new doctors.

The Washington medical community, he said, looks longingly across the state line to Idaho, where state law has capped jury awards and patients have stricter statute of limitations to follow.


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