By RONNIE ELLIS
After a lengthy and acrimonious debate, the state Senate Wednesday passed a bill along party lines to allow medical review panels to consider medical malpractice claims before they go to court.
Senate Bill 119, sponsored by Sen. Julie Denton, R-Louisville, would allow a panel of three physicians to investigate claims of medical error and its findings would be admissible in court. Under the bill, each side would choose one member and those two would choose the third.
Republicans claimed the measure is necessary to avoid “frivolous lawsuits” that they say are driving physicians and other medical providers to leave the state. Democrats argued the panels would be “stacked” in favor of the medical providers and subvert the constitutional right to trial by jury.
The bill has passed the Republican-controlled Senate in previous sessions, but died in the Democratic-controlled House.
As happened last year, Sen. Ray Jones, D-Pikeville, a trial attorney who is married to a physician, argued passionately against the bill, calling it “corporate cronyism” and “pandering to big-business and special interest groups.”
He spoke for the maximum allotted time of 30 minutes, citing various studies that said such measures in other states have not reduced medical malpractice insurance premiums and again displaying very large and often gruesome photographs of patients victimized by medical error.
Each time, he said the suits which resulted were hardly frivolous and said none of the injuries were caused by “greedy attorneys.” He noted his wife is a physician and his sister-in-law is also a physician who moved back to Kentucky from Texas, declaring physicians aren’t fleeing the state as supporters of the measure claim.
It is customary during floor debate on bills for a senator to ask the chair if the sponsoring senator “will yield to a question,” but Denton refused to yield to Jones, later explaining she would “not subject (herself) to a trial attorney’s interrogation.” She did the same thing last year.
“Well, some things never change,” Jones quipped before proceeding with his argument.
Jones had also offered several floor amendments to Denton’s bill, but Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, ruled them out of order because they were not germane to the bill.
Later, while explaining his vote against the bill, Sen. Walter Blevins, D-Morehead, a dentist, said the Republican majority had subverted the process by sending Denton’s bill back to the committee she chairs when Jones properly filed his original floor amendments.
The bill was amended in committee Wednesday morning and then sent to the floor for action Wednesday afternoon, thereby preventing the required time in advance for floor amendments to be filed. Jones’ original amendments were to the previously un-amended version of the bill and so were not germain, according to Stivers’ ruling.
Stivers and a couple of other Republican senators defended the bill, contending there are indeed many frivolous medical suits and the bill won’t prevent victims from going to court.
But Sen. Jerry Rhoads, D-Madisonville, said the bill violates the U.S. Constitution’s guarantee to a trial by jury and said it indicates the supporters “don’t trust jurors.”
The bill passed with 23 Republican votes and 13 Democrats voting no. Two Republicans, Sen. Sara Beth Gregory, R-Monticello, and Sen. John Schickel, R-Union, had left the floor and did not cast votes.
Ronnie Ellis writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him email@example.com. Follow CNHI News Service stories on Twitter at www.twitter.com/cnhifrankfort.
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