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Trial Lawyers And Doctors Clash Over Planned Medical Malpractice Rule Change

TRANSFORMING HEALTH - A proposed rule change is sparking debate around medical malpractice lawsuits, pitting doctors and health systems against personal injury trial lawyers and the state Supreme Court.

Since 2002, attorneys have been required to file medical malpractice lawsuits in the same county where the alleged malpractice occurred.

The proposal recommended by the state Supreme Court's civil procedural rules committee would allow attorneys to file suit in other counties that have ties to the incident, such as where a health system has offices or where a defendant lives.

The Hospital and Health System Association of Pennsylvania opposes the planned change, saying it would bring back a harmful practice it calls "venue shopping," where trial lawyers take cases to courts in Philadelphia or Pittsburgh that have historically been more favorable to plaintiffs.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, venue shopping caused consumer costs to increase and reduced patients' access to doctors as some medical practices close or relocated, said Asif Ilyas, a doctor and president of the Pennsylvania Orthopaedic Society. Ilyas and other doctors and lawmakers gathered at the state Capitol Monday to oppose the change.

At the media event, orthopaedic doctor Mike Gratch of Bucks County said that in 2001, he came within days of closing his practice because he was unable to get affordable medical malpractice insurance. Gratch said he's worried such costs will rise again if the Supreme Court allows the change.

At the Pennsylvania Association for Justice, attorney Cliff Rieders disagreed.

Rieders said the high medical malpractice rates of the early 2000s weren't caused by lawsuits, but rather by "a perfect storm" of factors including unstable interest rates, a corrupt medical malpractice insurance industry, and "a number of bad doctors that never faced discipline."

Rieders said in many counties, the deck is stacked in favor of doctors. He pointed to Administrative Office of the Pennsylvania Courts data showing that 18 percent of the previous year's 1,400 malpractice suits resulted in plaintiff verdicts. "At the same time, the Pennsylvania Patient Safety Authority reports incidents of serious events at about 330,000 per year."

The proposal is in a public comments period through Feb. 22. Opponents of the change are also backing a Senateresolution introduced by Republican State Sen. Lisa Baker that would delay the motion.

After the comments period ends, the rules committee may submit the proposal to the Supreme Court, change it, or discontinue it, said Daniel Durst, chief counsel for the rules committee. He said the committee's decision will depend on a thorough review of all public comments.

"The potential effect of one comment should not be underestimated," Durst said in an email. "Entire proposals have been reconsidered based solely on a single comment."