Medical malpractice laws are getting an airing at the Capitol today as the Judiciary Committee hears testimony on a proposed change to how cases against physicians come to court. 

Since 2005, a patient wanting to claim damages from a doctor for alleged negligence must have his or her case reviewed by a similar health care provider, who will certify whether the claim has merit. If the patient can’t get what’s known as a good faith certificate, the courts will dismiss the case before it gets to trial.

Attorneys say the statute has a chilling effect on cases.

Mike Walsh, president of the Connecticut Trial Lawyers Association, explained, “The term ‘similar health care provider’ was interpreted in such a rigid fashion that unless you had a doctor who was totally identical in terms of certifications and expertise and all the rest as the defendant, the courts would essentially dismiss the case and throw out the good faith certificate, and that was never the intent of the original legislation.”

Dr. John Foley, president of the Connecticut State Medical Society, is a cardiologist. Currently if a medical malpractice suit is brought by one of his patients, the patient would have to attach a certificate from another cardiologist. Foley said he thinks that’s reasonable.

If the law is rewritten, he said, “You could get a podiatrist or a chiropractor or a nurse practitioner or whatever to sign the certificate. It basically eliminates any protection from frivolous lawsuits.”

Rates for doctors’ medical malpractice insurance have risen sharply in Connecticut in recent years. Foley said they’ve just begun to level off, but he’s concerned that if this new wording to the law is approved, doctors would be reluctant to open practices here.

“If the malpractice laws are nonexistent and the ones we have are being torn apart, you would just cross Connecticut off your list of places to go, and that’s absolutely what we don’t want in a state that already has a shortage,” Foley said.

The number of malpractice suits filed in Connecticut dropped after the 2005 law, according to a review by the Associated Press. Walsh at the Trial Lawyers Association said patients who have a legitimate claim should be able to hold their doctors responsible.

“And the consequence of holding the person responsible is that it serves to improve the quality of health care in the future.”

A similar bill to change the language of the statute was defeated in the legislature last year.

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