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Utah Legislature: $250K malpractice cap being debated

SALT LAKE CITY — As the larger debate continues over whether big awards or a spate of settlements in medical malpractice cases are turbo-charging the high cost of health care here and nationwide, a bill to limit the amount patients in Utah could seek in court is moving through the Legislature.

Malpractice lawsuits generally, and frivolous cases in particular, are regarded as the most obvious yet least-discussed issue of health care reform efforts, both in Utah and in Congress, according to proponents of SB145. Opponents say the measure would add insult to injury for patients harmed by a medical mistakes.

SB145, sponsored by Sen. Stuart Adams, R-Layton, proposes a pain and suffering ceiling of $250,000, slightly more than half the $480,000 allowed now.

With the cost of health care in the United States, which has more than tripled since 1990, insurers have no choice but to impose larger and larger premiums to underwrite care, said Kelly Atkinson, a former legislator and now a spokesman for the Utah Health Insurance Association. For reform efforts to ultimately be successful, he added, statutes dealing with malpractice must be addressed first.

Area doctors and surgeons like orthopedics specialist Dr. Paul Winterton say along with setting an amount ceiling, lawmakers might as well also look into why malpractice insurance premiums are regularly topping $50,000 or more a year, even for providers who have never been sued.

The ongoing controversy is serious and needs to be addressed, said a few health care workers waiting outside a committee room at the Capitol on Wednesday. It's not funny, really, one said, but there's a joke going around hospitals and clinics: Utah does have a state lottery — medical malpractice — and threatening to sue and getting a settlement is hitting the jackpot.

SB145, which just appeared last week and awaits initial committee review, brings to a head a continuing debate between medical service providers and attorneys who represent patients contending they were injured instead of properly cared for by a doctor or hospital.

The issue will no doubt cause some pitched debate, said Rep. David Clark, R-Santa Clara, House speaker and chief architect of Utah's health's care reform effort, now in the third year of its projected decadelong overhaul.

"It's another aspect of the very complicated nature of health care and health care reform," he said. "They're debates we might not want necessarily but ones we need to have. What's at stake is too important."

See the bill at le.utah.gov/~2010/htmdoc/sbillhtm/SB0145.htm.

e-mail: jthalman@desnews.com