It's not in Gov. Rick Snyder's health care plan, but medical malpractice tort reforms could help Michigan deal with a nationwide doctor shortage. Other states — Texas most recently — have overtaken reforms Michigan adopted in the 1980s and 1990s.
Loopholes and ambiguous legal provisions are eroding controls that once made this state a national leader in avoiding unwarranted and overblown liability awards, according to the Michigan State Medical Society. That could make it harder to recruit enough doctors to meet the growing needs of an aging population, not to mention the expected surge in newly insured families under the 2009 federal affordable health care act.
Sen. Roger Kahn, R-Saginaw, a cardiologist, argues that without new reforms Michigan's doctor dearth is likely to grow.
Even if we take this step, trends aren't in our favor. One in every four Michigan doctors is older than 60 and approaching retirement, says the Medical Society, which represents about 16,000 Michigan doctors.
Studies suggest the state will have a shortage of more than 4,500 physicians in fields such as pediatrics and internal medicine by 2020.
Almost two-thirds of the state's doctors told the Medical Society in 2010 that their practices were full and they can't take more patients, up from 42 percent five years earlier.
And the federal health care law and its insurance exchanges, should it be upheld, would bring 75,000 additional Michiganians into the market for regular physician care.
Kahn is one sponsor of a package of bills to restore the limitations on non-economic damages that were intended by earlier malpractice liability reforms. Those limits were among the most effective of the rules that ended Michigan's long and dubious distinction as a haven for liability lawsuits in the 1980s.
Non-economic damages used to dramatically drive up the totals won by lawyers for their medical malpractice clients. Juries were encouraged to pile on tens of thousands of additional dollars in penalties based on concepts such as pain and suffering.
While complex, the legislation makes a clearer distinction between economic damages, such as lost wages and legal bills, and non-economic damages. According to the Medical Society, lawyers have found ways to as much as double the limit, which is supposed to be just under $500,000 for fuzzy problems such as loss of companionship.
The legislation also would eliminate "lost opportunity" as reason for upping the tally. The state Supreme Court has sought a clarification of legislative intent for this terminology, but proponents of the bills say many other states don't even include it in their laws.
Patients harmed by physicians' misdiagnosis, inappropriate treatment or unreasonable delays in providing care still could sue for damages. A patient also might have a case against a doctor who didn't provide enough information, such as that a particular surgery had a 30-percent chance of resulting in paralysis.
The proposed changes deserve to be fully aired and debated. It's in our best interests to make sure Michigan welcomes doctors looking for a place to set up a practice.