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Med-mal bill bolsters hospital protection

Florida lawmakers are considering a controversial proposal that would shield hospitals from malpractice lawsuits if they contract with doctors whose errors harm patients.

The proposal is a part of a wide-ranging malpractice bill approved today by a House subcommittee. Bill sponsor Mike Horner, R-Kissimmee, said the proposal would help resolve conflicting court decisions about whether hospitals should be held liable when doctors are independent contractors but work in hospitals.

But Rep. Darren Soto, D-Orlando, called the proposal the "800-pound gorilla" in the bill. Opponents questioned whether Medicaid would get stuck paying for the health care of injured patients if hospitals cannot be held liable and if contracted physicians do not have malpractice insurance.

"Who will end up paying for the care of that individual?'' asked Rep. Richard Steinberg, D-Miami Beach.

The bill, backed by doctors and hospitals, could be part of wide-ranging attempts this spring by the Republican-controlled Legislature to limit lawsuits against medical providers.

Jeff Scott, general counsel of the Florida Medical Association, said the bill does not restrict access to courts or limit damages in malpractice cases.

"It simply is a bill that is going to provide accountability and fairness in the malpractice system,'' Scott said.

But critics said it would make it harder for injured patients to get compensation for medical errors. The effort to place more restrictions on malpractice cases comes eight years after lawmakers passed a major overhaul that included new limits on damages.

"When is enough enough?'' asked Marcus Michles, a trial attorney who represented the Florida Justice Association at the committee meeting.

Along with the hospital proposal, the bill also takes aim at out-of-state expert witnesses --- a long time annoyance to doctors and other health-care providers who are hit with malpractice lawsuits.

Such experts would have to go through a state certification process. While that certification process would not be difficult, Rep. Larry Metz, an attorney, said the bill would help police expert witnesses who provide misleading testimony, allowing them to be banned from future cases in Florida.

Another controversial part of the bill would make it harder to prove that doctors erred by not ordering or performing what are described as "supplemental" diagnostic tests. Horner said that part of the bill would try to reduce pressure on doctors to perform tests that might be unnecessary -- but are done to avoid potential liability.

"I believe if we can reduce the amount of defensive medicine being practiced, we can ultimately reduce the price of health care,'' Horner said.

The House Civil Justice Subcommittee voted 12-3 to approve the bill, which still would have to go through two other committees before it could reach the full House.

But as the legislative session started today, it was one of several proposals in the House and Senate about limiting lawsuits against the health-care industry. Other proposals, for example, include providing legal protections to doctors who treat Medicaid patients and to emergency-room workers.

Steinberg repeatedly questioned how the bill would affect patients and the ability to sue over malpractice.

"It's death by 1,000 cuts in one bill,'' Steinberg said.

--Capital Bureau Chief Jim Saunders can be reached at 850-228-0963 or by e-mail at jim.saunders@healthnewsflorida.org.