Legislation would provide emergency physicians with helpful, and fair, tort reform

Emergency room doctors shouldn’t have to fear lawsuits when simply doing their jobs. A bill in the Michigan House would bring some reasonable control to medical malpractice lawsuits brought against physicians in emergency situations.

The liability limits in the legislation would improve patient care and help retain and even attract doctors to Michigan. Currently, the state is losing physicians, according to experts.

Antonio Bonfiglio, M.D., with offices in Warren and Fraser, says the bill relieves some of the liability physicians may face in medical emergencies.

“The bill doesn’t apply to elective surgeries or gross negligence,” explains the past president of the Michigan College of Emergency Physicians. “This isn’t a get out of jail free card (absolving doctors of all liability). This applies when patients are in emergency situations and when additional physician care is needed.”

The threat of a lawsuit often hangs over physicians. But liability concerns in emergency situations have some doctors, particularly specialists, hesitant to even be on call.

The federal Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act, passed in 1986, requires hospitals treat every person brought into their emergency rooms.

But sometimes, as Diane Bollman, executive director of the Michigan College of Emergency Physicians says, a person comes in who is not known to the doctor. The patient may be unconscious and unable to give the doctor adequate background information for his treatment. Sometimes the patient’s records are not available. Often, the records don’t even exist.

The liability in such medical situations has many specialists declining to be on call.

For example, Bollman notes, if a person goes into a Lansing-area hospital with a severe hand injury, most likely the individual will have to transfer to the University of Michigan or a Grand Rapids hospital because there are no hand specialists available. Hospitals used to require physicians to serve on-call time if they wanted to associate with a specific hospital. But those regulations are no longer enforced.

The bill is intended to provide some liability relief for all physicians who administer emergency care — from the emergency room doctors to cardiologists, radiologists and other specialists.

Bonfiglio says Michigan’s bill is similar to ones approved in Georgia and Texas. The legislation in those states, according to a 2012 study by the Michigan College of Emergency Physicians, helped keep doctors from leaving and attracted new physicians.

The study found that in Texas, the physician workforce growth has outpaced population growth every year since 2007 (the bill was passed in 2003). Nearly 25,000 doctors have been licensed in Texas since 2003.

In Georgia, the liability reform has attracted 1,000 new doctors.

As might be expected, stiff opposition is coming from trial lawyers. However, Rep. John Walsh, R-Livonia, main sponsor of the bill, says some attorneys have indicated they might compromise.

Walsh says his goal is to “make sure we have plenty of good, quality care in the emergency rooms by finding a way to reasonably address the liability threat physicians face and still leave a pathway for patients who encounter gross negligence.”

It’s a fair approach to offering medical tort relief.