A lawmaker’s four-year struggle to turn a medical malpractice reform bill into law moved one step closer to a successful conclusion June 16 during a hearing of the Senate Healthcare and Medical Liability Reform Committee.
The bill, sponsored by Sen. Carolyn Allen, a Republican from Scottsdale, passed the committee after a 5-2 vote. Republicans voted to advance the bill, while Democrats voted against it.
“I believe this year that the gods are aligned with this,” Allen said.
S1018 would raise the bar of proof required to convict an emergency room physician of negligence to “clear and convincing” evidence, the most stringent level of proof required for civil cases. The standard is akin to the “beyond a reasonable doubt” threshold used in criminal cases.
David Landrith, vice president of policy and political affairs for the Arizona Medical Association, told the committee that patients filing suits against emergency room physicians should be required to show stronger evidence because of the time-sensitive environment of an emergency room.
“These doctors sometimes have to make decisions without a clear medical history,” Landrith said.
Supporters of the bill said the measure was a vital to combating the state’s physician shortage.
“There is a tremendous fear amongst doctors about being sued,” said Sen. Barbara Leff, a Republican from Paradise Valley. “If doctors won’t take the call, patients will die.”
Malpractice laws in many states provide liability protection for physicians sued in response to medical errors resulting from emergency treatment.
Arizona lawmakers have taken similar steps to attract some physicians by shielding them from malpractice suits in the past. A decade-old law prevents doctors performing an emergency delivery of an infant from being found negligent without clear and convincing evidence.
But Sen. Paula Aboud, a Democrat from Tucson, isn’t as sure that the measure will cause an influx in the number of physicians willing to work in Arizona emergency rooms.
Citing a study conducted by the Governor’s Office after then-governor Janet Napolitano vetoed a similar bill in 2006, Aboud said that the fear of a lawsuit was a small part of the reasons doctors shy away from working in emergency departments. Long hours and low-pay, Aboud said, are the real reasons hospitals find it hard to recruit emergency room physicians.
“You can’t carve out a portion of the problem and only address that,” Aboud said. “This bill doesn’t solve the problem we are trying to prevent. But it does reduce the rights of those who suffer medical negligence.”
Medical liability reform bills introduced in the sessions following the governor’s veto never made it to the Ninth Floor, but legislative leaders in the House and Senate this session have voiced their support of the measure several times since January.
It is still unclear, though, what action the governor would take if the bill reached her desk.
But Arizona voters, not the governor, will have the final say on a second health care reform measure approved by the committee during the same hearing.
HCR2014 would refer to the voters in 2010 a constitutional amendment that would prevent citizens from being compelled to join a government-run health care system. The measure also would guarantee the right to purchase private health insurance.
Rep. Nancy Barto, the sponsor of the measure, told committee members that a constitutional amendment was necessary to protect Arizona residents from federal reforms that could force residents to enroll in a government-run health care system or risk losing coverage.
“(HCR2014) is proactive and will protect patients’ fundamental rights,” the Phoenix Republican said.
Committee members approved the measure 5-2 without debate, in sharp contrast to the two-and-a-half hour discussion needed to pass the same measure in the House last month. In both chambers, though, the vote was split along party lines.
The referendum is similar to 2008’s Proposition 101, which was rejected by voters by a slim margin. A total of 1,057,199 votes were cast against the initiative and 1,048,512 votes were cast for it.
Barto said she hopes the decision to put the measure on the ballot by way of the Legislature will convince more Arizonans to vote ‘yes’ next November.
“This way people will know it is coming sooner,” Barto said. “It will give us all the opportunity to inform our constituents about the importance of the measure.”