By: James Swift
Senate Bill 86, authored by District 21 Sen. Brandon Beach, R-Alpharetta, will drastically overhaul how Georgia handles medical malpractice suits.
Not only will the Patient Compensation Act limit how much plaintiffs can be awarded, the legislation will take the lawsuits completely out of the hands of trial juries.
“I think if someone is injured, they should be compensated, but some of the judgments that have happened in the past have been a bit outrageous,” Beach said. “What this bill does is that it changes from a legal court to an administrative court, very similar to worker’s compensation.”
Under the proposal, the new system will be governed by an 11-person panel consisting of physicians, attorneys, accountants and patient advocates. The board will set maximum injury compensation rates and approve medical review panelists.
Complaints will be handled by independent panels, comprised of representatives from practices or specialty areas similar to the provider. If a claim is found to have merit, the plaintiff will receive a monetary award to be determined by a compensation committee.
The system will be the first of its kind in the nation. Beach said the act not only seeks tort reform, but looks to curb “unnecessary” patient testing.
“The reason I am doing this is because we have a huge problem in the medical field of doctors practicing defensive medicine,” he said. “They are ordering tests they know they do not need to order, but they order them because they are afraid of litigation.”
To cover compensation costs, a provision of the act requires Georgia’s physicians to pay into an administrative fund.
Beach said many doctors and specialists he has met with support the proposal. The $19,500 annual fee for obtetrics and gynecology physicians, he said, is a marked decrease from their current malpractice insurance costs.
He said the act especially benefits those who experience minor medical injuries and cannot get a lawyer.
“There’s a certain sector out there that’s not getting any medical justice,” he said. “Here, everybody would have a right to file a complaint.”
A first reading of the legislation was held earlier this month.
Beach introduced a similar bill during the 2013-14 session. He said SB 86 had several changes, including the removal of contribution fees for hospitals.
District 56 Sen. John Albers, R-Roswell, cosponsored both bills.
“This is a great way to start a good conversation, and come up with a solution that will ultimately lower the cost of medicine,” he said.
Others, however, believe the bill is unconstitutional. Liz Coyle, executive director of the consumer advocacy group Georgia Watch, said the legislation denies patients their Seventh Amendment rights to jury trials.
“The victim of a lawnmower accident who loses a foot would have more rights than a patient who loses a whole leg due to a physician’s mistake,” she said. “This is simply not fair to Georgia’s health care consumers.”
She said she also has transparency concerns.
“Claims would not be reported to the National Practitioner Data Bank,” she said. “Information about doctors who cause medical injuries would be hidden from the public.”
Beach said he has received opinions from legal scholars throughout the country. He said none told him the proposal is unconstitutional.
“We have a health care crisis in this nation, and doing nothing is not an option,” he said. “We don’t need to wait for another state to pass something, we need to lead.”