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Coalition Asserts Big Damage Award Will Lift Insurance Costs

Coalition Asserts Big Damage Award Will Lift Insurance Costs

By LAURENCE DARMIENTO

Staff Reporter

A court ruling that threatens to push rates higher for medical malpractice insurance is being challenged by an alliance of doctors, dentists and hospitals.

Lawyers representing the alliance recently filed legal arguments seeking to overturn an Orange County Superior Court decision that found Torrance-based Healthcare Partners Medical Group was not subject to $250,000 limits on awards for pain and suffering established by the Medical Injury Compensation Reform Act.

The groups claim that the 1975 law has kept the state’s medical malpractice rates affordable for years, even as they skyrocket in other states.

“If MICRA doesn’t apply to medical groups, then many of them will be bankrupt in no time,” said Dr. Jack Lewin, president of the California Medical Association. “People don’t realize how important this decision is.”

The caps were established to halt multi-million dollar damage awards that were jacking up the rates for medical malpractice insurance. California’s rates have since stabilized while they’ve shot up elsewhere nationwide.

However, the court ruled in Allen v. Los Alamitos Medical Center that Healthcare Partners was not subject to the caps because it appeared to operate more like a managed care plan, accepting and managing risk for thousands of patients, as opposed to a simple partnership of doctors.

Attorney Steven Heimberg, who represented the plaintiff, said the worries of doctors and other health care providers were misplaced. He said the ruling wouldn’t take away MICRA protections from doctors’ groups.

“This is a large corporation with many interlocking businesses that services over 325,000 patients. It’s ludicrous to make this out as a mom and pop shop,” he said.

The decision stems from a medical malpractice case brought by a woman on behalf of her husband, who died after a serious infection was misdiagnosed. Healthcare Partners was found liable for $800,000 in non-economic damages.

The case is now before the state Court of Appeal, where the associations representing doctors, dentists and hospitals wrote a friend-of-the-court brief seeking to overturn it.

Jaime Court, a patients rights advocate with the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, praised the ruling, saying a recent study conducted by the foundation and another group showed that California medical malpractice premiums weren’t much lower than the rest of the nation. He said that all medical malpractice limits have done is hurt patients.

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