Senate Bill 141 by Sen. Brandon Beach, R-Alpharetta, would create a system in which patients take complaints of doctor or hospital mistakes to a panel of physicians for hearings rather than filing lawsuits in court. If the panel concludes compensation is warranted, it pays out of a fund all providers pay into, like the no-fault system that covers on-the-job injuries.
The change aims to simplify the system and reduce liability-insurance premiums for healthcare providers and eventually hold down health-insurance costs for employers once physicians stop ordering unneeded tests as part of their "defensive medicine."
Supporters say it would also get compensation for errors that are too small for lawyers in today's system to take on the expense of a lawsuit. In most medical malpractice suits, lawyers pay the upfront expenses in exchange for a share of any jury awards if their clients win, but they seldom take cases that don't have large potential payouts.
“Senator Beach is doing patients and taxpayers a real service by proposing this legislation,” said Wayne W. Oliver, executive director of Patients for Fair Compensation, an advocacy bankrolled by employers and healthcare companies. The Alpharetta-based group is pushing similar legislation in Florida.
Supporters of SB 141 say it is in response to a decision three years ago by the Georgia Supreme Court to rule unconstitutional $350,000 caps on malpractice awards. Enacting the caps in 2005 had been a major legislative achievement of the Georgia Chamber of Commerce.
Lawyers who sue doctors and hospitals for malpractice say caps rob suffering patients of just compensation and don't prompt sloppy medical professionals to improve or adopt safeguards.
They generally have opposed proposals like Beach's bill because they say it denies patients the chance to make their case to a jury of their peers which is unconstitutional.