Risky Business: Subjecting Texas Physicians to Unfriendly Liability Climates

While Texas patients have benefited from lower costs and an increase in specialty physicians in the decade since comprehensive medical liability reform was enacted, current litigation in New Mexico could undermine the legislation and leave the states’ physicians vulnerable when treating out-of-state patients.

A patient from New Mexico who received treatment in Texas is now seeking to exploit the differences in the two states’ liability laws by filing a lawsuit for damages not allowed under Texas law, putting the Texas attorney general and a New Mexico judge and Court of Appeals at odds over whether or not the litigation should be upheld.

One group of stakeholders has made their position clear – doctors and hospitals in both states who understand that, if the lawsuit is allowed to continue, Texas doctors in border towns may stop accepting New Mexico patients for treatment.

Also siding with reason on this issue is the editorial board of the Albuquerque Journal, acknowledging the risky business that would follow. “Why would any out-of-state doctors want to treat New Mexicans if they know they could face lawsuits in a state that has no connection to their practice or where the procedure occurred?”

Until medical liability reform is passed at the federal level, and the patchwork of laws from state to state becomes cohesive, HCLA urges judicial restraint to ensure that physicians in neighboring states, including Texas, are not held to the legal standards of the state in which they are neither licensed nor practice.

To read the Albuquerque Journal editorial against subjecting out-of-state physicians to New Mexico laws, click here.

Indiana Liability Limits Uncertain as Legal Challenge Looms

As personal injury lawyers make state-by-state challenges to reasonable limits on non-economic damages, Indiana legislators, expecting such a legal fight, are proposing an uncertain approach to increase the limits in order to avoid the issue in court.

Under the proposal, Indiana’s total cap and limit on damages per physician would both be increased substantially. Each health care professional would see their potential payout rise from $250,000 to $450,000 per claim, while the total cap on claims would increase from $1.25 million to $1.65 million [the state’s Patient Compensation Fund pays the excess if the health professional’s liability is less than the full amount of damages]. In addition, the state insurance commissioner would have to review the limits every four years and increase them based on changes to the Consumer Price Index over the intervening time period.

Skeptical physicians aren’t supporting the proposal, understanding that an increase in damages will encourage personal injury lawyers to seize the opportunity to file lawsuits that may otherwise be without merit and reduce care for Indiana patients.

A spokeswoman for the Indiana State Medical Association said the physicians group is worried the changes could hurt the public’s access to health care.

“These proposed changes come at a time when changes to the regulatory landscape, which each have a cost, are putting physician practices out of business,” said Marilyn Carter. “And if they go out of business, or choose to reduce insurance coverage due to cost, it impacts many, many Hoosiers.”

With the state’s personal injury lawyers stating that “there should never be a cap on [non-economic] damages,” it is unlikely that the increase in the limit on non-economic damages will have its intended effect of fending off court challenges to Indiana’s medical liability laws.

To read more about the proposed increase in non-economic damages in Indiana, click here.

Tennessee Physicians Propose Constitutional Amendment to Protect Patients

The Tennessee Medical Association, unmoved by the hurdles of a three-year legislative process, is asking lawmakers to solidify the state’s medical liability reforms by moving forward on a constitutional amendment that clarifies the rights of the legislature to set reasonable limits on non-economic damages.

The current limit on non-economic damages of $750,000 ($1 million in circumstances of catastrophic loss), while higher than in model liability reform states such as Texas and California, has still improved access to care and reduced meritless lawsuits.

Not only have lawsuits since been reduced by 40 percent, but liability premiums have stabilized in a way that ensures physicians are not pushed out of practice by sky-high costs – and that new physicians don’t avoid the state altogether.

“We want the best and brightest physicians,” said Yarnell Beatty, general counsel for the Tennessee Medical Association. “If there’s a bad liability climate in Tennessee, they won’t come.”

While a legal challenge hasn’t yet risen to the state’s Supreme Court, a preliminary ruling at a lower court has the medical association proactively working on a resolution that would, in summary, state “that an individual’s right to trial by jury is not abridged if there are limits placed on non-economic damages.”

In lieu of movement on liability reform at the federal level, Tennessee, like many other states, faces relentless challenges from personal injury lawyers with deep pockets willing to bet that courts will yield under the pressure.

To read more about the proposal from the Tennessee Medical Association, click here.