Florida's hospital-friendly tort reform could spark a wave

In a move that hospitals execs nationwide will no doubt hail, Florida legislators recently passed several laws to protect healthcare facilities against patient lawsuits.

The biggest, HB479, restricts the use of expert witnesses in malpractice cases. Sent to the governor for signature yesterday, the bill requires out-of-state expert witnesses to obtain a certificate from the state health department, and allows the state Board of Medicine to discipline expert witnesses whose testimony is fraudulent, deceptive or misleading.

In a bit of an unexpected twist, Republican lawmakers admitted they made the changes to convince physicians and hospitals to go along with the legislature's plans to make Medicaid into a managed care program in the state, the Orlando Sentinel reports.

To that end, legislators also added provisions into three Medicaid bills--SB1972 and HBs 7107 and 7109--to limit pain-and-suffering damages against nursing homes to $250,000, and to cap doctor liability at $300,000 unless the provider acted maliciously.

One other bill made it through the legislature this week, specifically limiting lawsuits against teaching hospitals in the state, according to the Associated Press. The bill, now on it's way to Governor Scott for signature, extends the state's "sovereign immunity" protections to teaching institutions. That means plaintiffs would have to secure an act of the Legislature to get a settlement larger than $100,000 per person and $200,000 per incident, the AP reports.

Tort reform proponents hope all of these changes will have a chilling effect on the number of malpractice suits brought in Florida. And they may be right. After a series of even more sweeping changes made in 2003 by then-governor Jeb Bush, the number of lawsuits, and the size of payouts, both fell by nearly 14 percent, according to Office of Insurance Regulation data reported in the Sentinel. Physicians' total insurance premiums paid plummeted even further, dropping 36 percent.

To learn more:
- check out the Orlando Sentinel story
- read the Sunshine State News coverage
- get more detail on the teaching hospital bill