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Allen’s Med-mal bill clears House committee

Supporters of a bill that would make the state’s medical-malpractice laws more stringent gained a victory June 24 during a hearing of the House Health and Human Services Committee. 

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. State courts currently use a “preponderance of evidence” measure when ruling on malpractice cases.

The measure was approved in a 5-2 vote that split down party lines.

Sen. Carolyn Allen, the bill’s sponsor, told committee members the measure is needed to increase the number of physicians willing to work in emergency rooms, especially in rural areas.

“These emergency doctors see people they have never seen. They don’t even have their medical records,” the Scottsdale Republican said. “I have heard from many doctors that they would go to the emergency room if this protection existed.”

It is unclear, though, whether this bill alone would be enough to attract physicians to the state’s emergency rooms.

A study commissioned by the Governor’s Office shortly after then-Gov. Janet Napolitano vetoed a similar measure in 2006 advocated malpractice reform only in conjunction with an effort to lower physicians’ insurance premiums.

“I am almost 100 percent certain that this action will do nothing to increase the number of emergency room doctors,” said Rep. Phil Lopes, a Democrat from Tucson.

Also, state law already requires judges and juries to consider whether a patient’s medical records were “reasonably available” to an emergency room physician, which protects physicians from being held accountable for making life-or-death decisions based on limited information.

“All this bill would do is increase the burden on injured patients looking for redress,” said Michael Wright, an attorney with the Arizona Trial Lawyers Association.

Allen agreed that her bill alone might not be enough to significantly increase the number of available emergency room physicians, but said it was an important first step.

“At no time would I deny anybody with a serious injury the right to a suit,” Allen said. “I would never do that.”

Today’s hearing marks the fourth time lawmakers have considered the reform measure in recent years. Similar bills introduced in the sessions following the governor’s veto never made it to the ninth floor.

It is unclear whether Gov. Jan Brewer would sign the bill if it made it to her desk.

“I feel like I have been dealing with this bill since preschool,” Lopes said.

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