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Medical malpractice compromise heads to Senate floor

In this Jan. 25 file photo, Rep. Jason Harper, R-Rio Rancho, left, and Rep. Daymon Ely, D-Corrales, talk on the House floor during debate of over rule changes that will allow representatives to work and vote from a remote location. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – Hospitals, physicians and trial lawyers unveiled a complex agreement Wednesday that would reshape New Mexico’s medical malpractice law – a compromise intended to break an impasse over how to better protect patients and ensure health care providers can afford legal insurance.

They pleaded with the Senate Judiciary Committee late Wednesday to avoid tampering with the proposal, insisting that every word had been vetted and changes could spoil the deal.

They got their wish, and the bill will head next to the full Senate.

“This is an incredibly complex and litigious field,” said Rep. Daymon Ely, a Corrales Democrat who sponsored the legislation. “We are clearly running out of time. If we start to tinker with the (compromise) amendment, we are going to be in trouble.”

Hospitals and plaintiff’s attorneys had started the session at odds, each proposing competing measures to overhaul the Medical Malpractice Act. But they all spoke in favor of an amendment to Ely’s proposal, House Bill 75, that reflected language they could agree on.

Carrie Robin Brunder, a lobbyist for the New Mexico Medical Society, a group that includes physicians, said reaching agreement was remarkable after the parties started so far apart.

“This negotiated amendment is very delicate and complex,” Brunder said.

Under the current system, there’s a $600,000 cap on nonmedical damages – a limit intended to ensure physicians can afford medical malpractice insurance. Physicians and hospitals also pay into a patient compensation fund to help cover legal claims, but the fund has struggled with deficits, adding pressure to come up with a fix.

The proposed compromise would:

⋄ Raise the damages cap for hospitals to $6 million, with the increases phased in slowly over time. Ely had initially proposed removing hospitals from the cap altogether.

⋄ Lift the damages cap for independent physicians and other providers to $750,000.

⋄ Add nurse practitioners, midwifes and certain other health care providers into coverage under the Medical Malpractice Act, a move intended to help spread out the legal risk and strengthen the finances of the patient compensation fund.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Joseph Cervantes, a Las Cruces Democrat who handles medical malpractice cases as an attorney, and Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, an Albuquerque Democrat and also a lawyer, asked a series of detailed questions about the proposal.

They didn’t propose amendments to the bill Wednesday, and the amended legislation passed the committee with bipartisan support.

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