SANTA FE — Tension over the lack of progress on medical malpractice legislation boiled over Saturday, triggering procedural skirmishes at the Roundhouse as about 100 doctors in white coats and scrubs watched from the gallery.
In the House, Republicans sought to dislodge a bill stuck in committee and move it either to the full chamber for final action or to another committee — procedural moves that failed.
Democrats said it would be inappropriate to bypass the usual committee process.
In the Senate, lawmakers of both parties thanked physicians and medical providers in the audience and said legislation intended to address New Mexico’s doctor shortage remains a priority.
But time is running out. Just a week is left in the 60-day session.
The speeches and procedural skirmishes came after the doctors had been warned by sergeants at arms — who keep order during legislative meetings — to avoid disrupting the proceedings.
The doctors had clapped during an earlier committee hearing after a senator called for action to revise New Mexico’s medical malpractice law. Applause is normally — but not always — prohibited during legislative meetings.
Senate Minority Whip Craig Brandt, R-Rio Rancho, said the physicians had done nothing wrong.
“Let’s stop treating the doctors rudely,” he told his colleagues. “They have saved our lives over the last three years. They deserve a little leeway.”
The doctors, in any case, watched quietly from the gallery Saturday as the House and Senate engaged in procedural clashes and speeches about the state’s medical malpractice law.
The tension comes as lawmakers talk behind the scenes about how to address New Mexico’s doctor shortage. Proposals to boost student loan repayment programs and compensation for treating Medicaid patients have advanced at the Roundhouse.
But Democrats in each chamber have blocked proposals to revise the state’s 2021 medical malpractice law.
Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, told the doctors Saturday that he and Republican legislative leaders in his chamber are still trying to facilitate a compromise among the physicians, hospitals, patients and plaintiffs’ lawyers.
“There’s a recognition that we need to get this resolved,” Wirth said. “We have a week to go. There’s still plenty of time to make this happen.”
Republicans aren’t so optimistic and pushed for immediate action Saturday.
“We have a medical crisis,” Republican Rep. Bill Rehm of Albuquerque said.
He tried to move one of the medical malpractice bills out of the House Health and Human Services Committee — where it had been tabled last month — and send it either to its next committee, House Judiciary, or to the full House.
“Blasting” a bill out of committee, as it’s called, is a rarely used motion.
Despite the failure to move the bill Saturday, it could still be revived — either in committee or through new legislation, if a compromise is reached.
Like Wirth in the Senate, House Speaker Javier Martínez, D-Albuquerque, suggested Saturday’s action isn’t the end of the debate.
“My hope and expectation is that there is a good compromise on the table,” he said.
Democrats hold large majorities in each chamber, making their support critical to any potential changes to the malpractice law.
Much of the debate focuses on independently owned outpatient clinics. They face higher legal exposure for medical malpractice claims next year — a result of legislation in 2021 that phased in higher caps on legal damages.
The clinics say they cannot obtain the full insurance needed to operate under the higher cap and will have to close or sell to a corporate hospital. Opponents, in turn, say insurance companies are trying to protect their bottom line at the expense of families harmed by medical mistakes.