In 2003 it was reported that doctors and other healthcare workers were leaving Pennsylvania in record numbers. At blame was the rising cost of medical malpractice insurance. The state Supreme Court made a controversial decision to limit malpractice claims by requiring individuals to file their cases only in the county in which the incident occurred. Now, a report from an independent study calls that decision into question.
The problem began in the early 2000s when several insurers announced they would no longer offer policies for medical malpractice in Pennsylvania due to the high costs. At the same time, premium costs for certain medical specialties went up, and doctors left the state to practice elsewhere. Some doctors went so far as to protest at the state Capitol building, dropping their white coats on the ground.
Pennsylvania lawmakers responded by passing a law that would require malpractice cases to be filed only in the counties in which the incidents occurred. Up to this point victims of malpractice could choose any county in which the medical professional practiced, allowing them to pick an area where they believed a jury would be more sympathetic.
Initially, the law was ruled unconstitutional. An appeals court found that the law infringed on judicial authority. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court reacted by changing procedural rules, which allowed the law to stand.
The 2020 Report
February saw the publication of results from a study by the Legislative Budget and Finance Committee, an independent, bipartisan group. The study was intended to be independent and to remove politics from the issue.
The study aimed to determine if rising malpractice insurance costs really did cause a crisis in doctors leaving the state. The results found that there was no conclusive evidence that this was the result of high insurance premiums. In other words, the study really couldn’t answer the question satisfactorily.
Now, two sides of the issue are both claiming to be right. The healthcare industry continues to call for keeping the law in place. Trial lawyers and victim advocates call for the law to be abolished so that victims can file with more flexibility in venue.
How the Law Hurts Victims
Advocates for the victims of medical malpractice cite the study as good reason to overturn the law. They say there is no evidence that allowing victims to file in other counties would cause a crisis in the state’s healthcare industry.
In fact, they say, the law has only harmed victims. Juries in some areas of the state, especially rural counties, are less sympathetic to malpractice victims and less likely to rule in their favor. This puts some genuine victims at a disadvantage, while those in more urban areas have an advantage in winning cases.
Not only does the new study not indicate there would be a mass exodus of doctors from the state if the law changed, it also suggests that the increase in insurance prices in Pennsylvania were not special. They were simply part of a wider trend seen around the country. The Supreme Court must now decide which way it will go with the law, whether it will stay in place or change to better protect victims.