Senate passes medical malpractice compromise

The Senate on Friday approved a compromise bill aimed at loosening the requirements for bringing a medical malpractice lawsuit, a controversial issue that has sharply divided health care providers and plaintiff attorneys.

The bill, which now goes to the House, would alter a 2005 tort reform law that requires anyone who files a medical malpractice lawsuit to submit a written opinion, called a certificate of merit, from a “similar” health care provider to the one being sued, testifying to the appearance of medical neglect.

The measure was aimed at preventing what health care providers said were frivolous lawsuits that contributed to rising malpractice insurance costs. But critics of the requirement have said it’s too restrictive. They have pointed to cases that were dismissed because the physicians who wrote the opinion letters weren’t considered “similar” to the ones being sued. In one case, a court dismissed a lawsuit against an emergency physician because the certificate of merit was written by a doctor who described himself as practicing trauma surgery, even though most of his work time was spent in an emergency department.

An earlier version of the bill would have changed the requirement for the author of the certificate of merit, from requiring a “similar” health care provider to a “qualified” one. That drew opposition from health care providers, who argued that it would gut the 2005 malpractice reform measure.

The compromise bill the Senate passed Friday would not remove the law’s reference to the need for a certificate of merit from a “similar” health care provider, but it also provides another option: The letter could be written by a health care provider who the court determines has enough expertise in the type of health care at issue in the complaint that he or she could testify as an expert on the standard of care. The certificate of merit would have to include a detailed basis for the provider’s belief in the evidence of medical negligence, and identify one or more breaches of the standard of care.

Legislators from both parties described the proposal as a reasonable compromise.

Sen. Eric D. Coleman, D-Bloomfield, spoke of the need to balance the interests of ensuring that people who are injured have access to the courts and making sure that health care providers are not overly burdened by malpractice insurance costs and can continue to see patients in the state.

“The bill as amended, I think, strikes as best we as we can today that balance,” said Coleman, co-chairman of the Judiciary Committee.

“The frivolous cases won’t find their way in, and the meritorious ones will, and that’s doing a good thing,” Senate Minority Leader John McKinney, R-Fairfield, said.

The bill passed 32-3. Democrats Anthony Musto of Trumbull, Edward Meyer of Guilford and Terry Gerratana of New Britain voted against it. Democrat Edith Prague of Columbia was absent.

A bill similar to the original proposal passed the House last year but died in the Senate after failing to be brought to a vote following a lengthy debate.