As California goes, so goes Nevada and the country. That could be a very bad thing for Nevada’s medical community.
Recall that a decade ago, Nevada was mired in a medical malpractice crisis that led to the closure of University Medical Center’s trauma unit. Malpractice insurance rates were skyrocketing, and reforms passed by the Legislature in a 2002 special session had loopholes large enough for attorneys to chase an ambulance through. So doctors placed on the 2004 ballot an initiative to create a hard $350,000 cap on noneconomic damages (awarded for pain and suffering); limit attorney fees; shorten the statute of limitations in medical malpractice actions; and eliminate joint and several liability, which allowed defendants to collect judgments disproportionate to the degree of a provider’s fault.
The initiative, which was modeled from California’s groundbreaking, gold-standard medical malpractice reforms of 1975, was approved by voters. Nevada’s malpractice insurance market stabilized.
Now a movement is afoot in California to change that gold standard by raising the cap on noneconomic damages from $250,000 to more than $1 million, with future inflation-based increases; mandating drug and alcohol tests on physicians; and creating a database that tracks prescriptions.
Because the California Legislature isn’t likely to approve the plan, supporters have started the process of placing it on the 2014 ballot. The initiative is backed by Santa Monica-based Consumer Watchdog and NetZero founder Bob Pack, whose children and unborn twins were killed by an over-prescribed, drugged driver.
If the initiative qualifies and voters approve the question, it would increase medical malpractice premiums — and perhaps cause some insurance providers to stop offering coverage — which would further increase the cost of health care.
In Nevada, the lawyer lobby already has tried to rewrite and repeal the 2004 reforms in their favor. It’s one of their top goals every legislative session. Any change in California law no doubt would embolden them to push harder. And the high-profile malpractice of former Nevada physician Dipak Desai, now imprisoned for murder after sickening some of his patients with hepatitis through willfully unsafe, cost-cutting infection-control practices, certainly gives them a campaign poster boy.
But Nevada doesn’t need to relive the crisis of 10 years ago. If Californians make the mistake of siding with lawyers over doctors, Nevadans shouldn’t follow their lead.