Medical malpractice overhaul advances in Senate

Mar. 7—SANTA FE — A proposal to remove hospitals from the state's Medical Malpractice Act — exposing them to greater damage awards in court — narrowly survived a tense, tearful committee hearing Saturday.

The legislation, House Bill 75, now heads to the Senate Judiciary Committee, where a competing measure backed by the New Mexico Hospital Association and doctor and nursing groups is also pending.

The bill debated Saturday advanced on a 6-5 vote after family members testified about the anguish of seeing a child or parent harmed by hospital wrongdoing.

"This is about the death and loss of loved ones, not by mistakes, but by gross negligence," said Ezra Spitzer, whose daughter Effie died a few days after birth. "The current system has no accountability."

But opponents of the legislation said the bill would worsen New Mexico's physician shortage and endanger rural hospitals because medical malpractice insurance would become too expensive.

Democratic Sen. Martin Hickey, a retired doctor and health care executive from Albuquerque, said the bill would inflict terrible damage on the state's health care system.

"It's very clear," he said. "This will close hospitals in New Mexico."

The hearing had some tense moments.

Hickey, at one point, sharply questioned a witness who had testified about her daughter bleeding to death in a hospital. He asked what subject the woman had received her doctorate in and pushed her to cite her source on a statistic about patient deaths.

Other senators asked Hickey not to question the witnesses directly — to instead relay questions through the committee chairman, the standard practice to avoid confrontations between committee members and people testifying.

"We have folks here who have experienced incredible loss," said Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe. "Let's treat them with respect."

The woman Hickey had questioned, retired Air Force Col. Michaela Shafer, a registered nurse, responded that her doctorate included research on medical and nursing ethics.

Even with Saturday's vote, the bill's future is uncertain.

Wirth said supporters and opponents of House Bill 75 and the competing Senate measure need to work together and come up with an equitable solution.

He noted that some hospitals have opted into the protections offered by the Medical Malpractice Act — establishing a $600,000 cap on damages — but others haven't, creating what he called a checkerboard of different rules for hospitals.

"The system is broken," Wirth said.

The other proposal, Senate Bill 239, has bipartisan sponsorship from a group of five senators, including Hickey.

It would allow hospitals to benefit from the Medical Malpractice Act protections, but with some adjustments intended to ensure they're paying their fair share into a patient compensation fund. The measure would also raise the cap on damages from $600,000 to $750,000 and make a host of broader changes to the medical malpractice system.

Hickey acknowledged during the hearing that he might have been "overly passionate" but said he was motivated only by trying to help patients and doctors.

Wirth, for his part, disclosed during the hearing that in his capacity as a lawyer, he sometimes serves as a court-appointed representative for families harmed by medical malpractice. But he said the work isn't a conflict that would require him to abstain from voting.

New Mexico has a part-time, unsalaried Legislature.

House Bill 75 cleared the Senate Tax, Business and Transportation Committee on an 6-5 vote without recommendation, following an almost four-hear hearing. The bill is sponsored by Rep. Daymon Ely, D-Corrales.