The Oregon Legislature is back in session, but only for a short time. This is an even-numbered year, and that means the session cannot exceed 35 days. According to the governor, that is not enough time to tackle medical malpractice liability reform.

Gov. John Kitzhaber was responding to a challenge from Republican senators. They will oppose the governor’s efforts to reform the Oregon Health Plan if he does not agree to include limits on medical malpractice jury awards in the bill.

The Legislature considered two medical malpractice bills last year, one that would limit non-economic damages and one that would establish legal medical panels. Neither measure passed, but non-economic damages are still front and center for some lawmakers.

Proponents of so-called damage caps say that an upper limit on pain and suffering damages would lower the state’s medical costs in two ways. First, doctors would not feel compelled to practice defensive medicine. In other words, doctors would not run unnecessary and expensive tests for the sole reason of avoiding a lawsuit.

Second, limits on caps would lower malpractice insurance premiums. The lower premiums would translate into lower costs for the physician, which would translate into lower costs to patients.

Patient advocates counter that limits encroach on the role of the jury. It should be the jury, they argue, that decides how best to compensate the patient for a medical mistake. Each case is unique, and a cap would be an artificial limit on what an injured patient deserves.

The governor would prefer that he and a group of stakeholders — doctors and lawyers and other affected parties — work this year to negotiate a proposal for the 2013 session. He agrees that limits are an issue, but he maintains that the solution must balance competing interests.

Source: Insurance Journal, “Oregon GOP Pushes Limits on Medical Malpractice Liability,” Jonathan J. Cooper, Jan. 31, 2012