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Medical malpractice reform: Giving bad doctors immunity or improving access to health care?

LANSING, MI -- Some 300 people turned out for testimony on proposed changes to Michigan's medical malpractice laws.

Many people in the crowd wore T-shirts with the slogan "Accountability No Immunity." Personal injury lawyers and their clients contend Senate Bills 1115-1118 would make it harder to win medical malpractice cases and essentially give bad doctors immunity from their misdoings.

Bill supporters, which include doctors and insurers, say it would address inequities in liability statutes and improve access to care. They explained that creating a more welcoming environment would help address a looming physician shortage as many doctors reach retirement age.

The Senate Insurance Committee did not vote on the bills and likely won't discuss them again until session resumes next month.

Much of the debate focused on Senate Bill 1116, which states that a health care professional or facility would not be liable if the doctor acted with reasonable and good-faith belief that the conduct was well-founded in medicine and in the patient's best interests.

Tammy Finley, 45, spoke about her experience suffering from gangrene after a doctor incorrectly performed surgery and sent her home.

"If you pass this legislation, people like me will not have any protection from what this doctor did to me," she said. "You will allow someone like her with a medical degree to have the status of a god, giving them rights far beyond their fellow citizens."

Other victims of medical malpractice said they're opposed to Senate Bill 1115, which would reduce the amount of damages that could be awarded.

Sen. Steve Bieda, D-Warren, questioned the potential impact of the tort reform.

"I guess my concern with this legislation is if it's going too far... at least the way that it's currently worded, that we might be protecting the bad actors and really not doing anything for the good actors," he said.

Former Michigan Supreme Court Justice Cliff Taylor spoke on behalf of the Michigan State Medical Society, which supports the legislation.

"This is not an immunity bill in my view and I don't think it's fair to think that Michigan courts would construe it in that fashion," he said.

The way Taylor sees it, the bill means that doctors would not be held liable as long as they acted within a standard of care, even if there are multiple alternatives to treating a patient and the one chosen has a negative result.

Dr. Cheryl Gibson Fountain, a doctor of obstetrics and gynecology for Beaumont Health System, said the bills level the playing field between doctors and patients who sue them.

These "reasonable reforms," she said, will help make Michigan an attractive state for physicians. She's particularly concerned about patients' access to obstetrical care in northern lower Michigan, where she said 17 contiguous counties lack obstetricians.

"The whole tort reform is necessary to ensure that we have physicians for patients to have access to this great quality care that we're speaking of, that we all desire for our patients," she said.

Written by: Melissa Anders Wednesday, July 18, 2012


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