SALEM — Usually staunch adversaries, doctors and trial lawyers have both gotten behind an Oregon bill creating a new mediation process for patients injured by medical mistakes.
Gov. John Kitzhaber, a doctor, called their agreement “the holy grail of medical and legal politics," something he never thought he’d live to see.
“This is a foundation," Kitzhaber told a Senate committee Thursday. “It will definitely benefit the practice of medicine. It will benefit hundreds if not thousands of individuals."
The Senate Judiciary Committee approved the measure Thursday, advancing it to a budget committee.
The bill is aimed at reducing medical liability claims, but it doesn’t put any restrictions on the amount of money a jury can award to punish doctors or hospitals for medical errors. Critics say it won’t do anything to reduce the sky-high premiums for medical liability insurance.
The measure would allow injured patients to confidentially discuss the error and a possible settlement with the hospital or clinic where the mistake occurred, potentially with the help of a professional mediator. Participation would be voluntary, and the discussions would not be admissible in court if a lawsuit were eventually filed, which proponents hope would encourage frank discussion that could stave off a lawsuit.
Rep. Jason Conger, R-Bend, sat on the work group tasked with helping draft the legislation. He said it would help people understand where the risks are and how to avoid future errors, “which really means fewer people get hurt," he said.
Doctors would have a better opportunity to learn from mistakes, proponents argue, and they could back away from ordering medically unnecessary tests in order to protect themselves from lawsuits.
“What we really are putting in place here is a way to get a whole lot of folks access to closure that they might not otherwise have," said Sen. Jeff Kruse, a Roseburg Republican and a chief sponsor of the measure.
The measure could result in higher administrative costs for insurance companies and might drive premiums higher for doctors, said Jim Dorigan, senior vice president of The Doctors Company, which insures about 40 percent of physicians in Oregon.
“I support the efforts that went into the development of Senate Bill 483, but I don’t want it to foreclose on addressing the issues of liability reform," Dorigan said.
Conger said he commends the governor for his efforts, but he said it’s not medical liability reform, which he said is very political and on which consensus can be difficult.
His hope is fewer cases will be litigated, people hurt will still be compensated and the system as a whole will run more efficiently.
“This is a piece of the solution and I do think it’s a step in the right direction," he said.