An important fight over medical malpractice caps in the nation’s most populous state is gearing up. Advocates on both sides of the issue are preparing for what many agree will be a long and costly battle that will be settled in November 2014 when the issue goes on the ballot.
The ballot initiative was officially filed last week and, if approved, would increase a nearly 40-year-old limit on medical malpractice payouts. On one side of the debate are doctors and hospitals that have vowed to zealously defend the current caps. On the other side, plaintiffs’ attorneys and one prominent businessman have said the caps are woefully out of date and deserve to at least keep pace with the rate of inflation.
The ballot initiative is aimed at amending the state’s 1975 Medical Injury Compensation Reform Act and updating the med mal caps. The initiative is being backed by an influential former executive from the tech industry, Bob Pack, a founder of NetZero. Pack’s involvement in the matter is personal, not professional, and arose after he lost a son and daughter to a driver who was high on prescription drugs nearly a decade ago. The two were hit as they walked down a sidewalk.
Pack is trying to change the current limits which cap the amount of noneconomic damages that can be awarded in medical malpractice cases at $250,000. This figure, which was set in 1975, has not been raised since. The initiative would increase this cap to $1.1 million; a number which advocates say is equivalent to the $250,000 when it was passed nearly four decades ago.
Beyond raising the med mal damages cap, the initiative would also require that doctors with hospital privileges be subjected to random drug and alcohol testing. This has sparked outrage from doctors who say they have a right to privacy. Proponents argue patients should be assured that their healthcare providers are sober and not under the influence of intoxicating substances which might jeopardize their care. Another component of the ballot measure would require doctors to use a statewide database to figure out whether a patient seeking narcotics had already received similar medications from other doctors. Currently use of the database, known as CURES, is voluntary.
Pack and plaintiffs’ attorneys say the ballot measure is designed to even the playing field between doctors and the innocent victims who have suffered terrible harm due to the negligence of others. Hospitals and doctors groups have said the measure will increase the cost of practicing medicine in California and will result in a decrease in the number of doctors willing to work in the state, ultimately diminishing the care for everyone.
Though the ballot initiative only affects residents of California, advocates on both sides of the fight agree that what goes on in California often impacts other states. Given California’s standing as the most populous and most economically powerful state in the country, trends there are carefully watched by legislators elsewhere.