Distressed doctors worried about having to close their clinics and abandon their patients because of unattainable malpractice insurance coverage made another call on the state House and Senate on Saturday. And as a collective, state lawmakers once again prescribed lip service as time runs out in the 60-day legislative session.
At issue is the flawed Medical Malpractice Act of 2021, which in January will recklessly reclassify low-risk outpatient clinics like Southwest Gastroenterology Associates, the New Mexico Cancer Center, Eye Associates, New Mexico Orthopedic Associates, Women’s Specialists of New Mexico and El Pueblo Health Services as large hospitals — while raising the clinics’ cap on legal damages from $750,000 to $5 million.
Independent physicians and doctors at independently owned outpatient clinics say they can’t afford or can’t acquire full medical malpractice insurance under the new caps on claims, forcing them to close, sell their clinics to a corporate hospital or leave the state to continue to practice.
“I understand that patients can be injured by medical treatment and feel that they should be compensated, but failure to address the nearly 1,000% increase in the malpractice cap for the affected clinics will penalize many more patients in the state as more patients lose their doctors,” writes Dr. Alan M. Firestone of Placitas, medical director for El Pueblo Health Services in Bernalillo for 37 years.
Doctors have been pleading with lawmakers for months. On Saturday, a “Whitecoat/White Shirt Flash Mob” of about 100 physicians and New Mexico Medical Society members clad in white coats and scrubs took time away from their practices to urge lawmakers to act.
Although lawmakers created the problem in 2021, so far they are unwilling to fix — or even debate — it.
In the House, Republicans on Saturday sought to revive House Bill 88, which has been stuck in the House Health and Human Services Committee for a month, and move it either to the full chamber for final action or to another committee. But the procedural moves failed. Democrats said it would be inappropriate to bypass the usual committee process — even as Republican Rep. Bill Rehm of Albuquerque explained: “We have a medical crisis.”
Many of the doctors support Senate Bill 296, which would amend the malpractice act to limit the recovery for claims against outpatient health care facilities that are not majority-owned or -controlled by a hospital at $750,000 per occurrence. But the bill remains stuck in Senate committees.
Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, told the doctors he and Republican Senate leaders are still trying to facilitate a compromise among the physicians, hospitals, patients and plaintiffs’ lawyers. He said “there’s still plenty of time to make this happen,” but the legislative calendar says otherwise. The session ends at noon Saturday. House Speaker Javier Martínez, D-Albuquerque, says he’s hoping for “a good compromise.”
It tells you all you need to know that some lawmakers were more concerned about the doctors potentially clapping in the House and Senate galleries than helping them keep their clinics open.
Proposals to boost compensation for treating Medicaid patients and student loan repayment programs have advanced at the Roundhouse, and those are good steps to address the doctor shortage. But Democrats who hold large majorities in the House and Senate continue to block proposals to revise the malpractice act.
It’s certainly not on behalf of patients — the proposed reforms don’t mean families harmed by medical mistakes won’t be compensated. The state has a patient compensation fund, which qualified health care providers pay fees into, that covers all or some of large malpractice damage awards.
New Mexico already had 700 fewer primary care physicians in 2021 when the medical malpractice law was rewritten than in 2017. Without malpractice reform, doctors will continue fleeing the state and New Mexicans will have an even harder time finding medical care.
Lawmakers need to act fast or they’ll need to find an out-of-state provider next time they need a colonoscopy or cataract surgery. Their thoughts and prayers aren’t going to keep outpatient clinics open. Only legislative action will.
This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.