Maryland’s hospital operators say that malpractice suits are leaving them few options but to consider shutting down maternity wards. Lawmakers are now mulling a “no-fault birth injury fund” that would allow parents of babies injured at birth to seek compensation from a state fund, rather that pursuing their claims in court, according to the Capital News Service.
The legislation to create the fund was sponsored by Sen. Catherine Pugh, of Baltimore, and Del. Dan Morhaim, of Baltimore County. Both are Democrats. It was recently amended to form a task force to investigate the fund’s viability.
“Over the last 24 months, juries in Baltimore City and Prince George’s County returned verdicts relating to births against hospitals for $55 million, $22 million, $18 million, $15.6 million and $9.5 million. The magnitude of these awards have had an immediate effect on the liability climate in Maryland,” Dr. Andrew Satin, director of gynecology and obstetrics at Johns Hopkins, told lawmakers at a recent hearing.
While opponents to the legislation say that many of those civil judgments have been reduced or overturned, the prospect of these often lengthy lawsuits creates a chilling effect on OB-GYNs, birthing centers and maternity operations, not to mention bad press and significant costs.
Medical malpractice claims are capped in Maryland. In 2014, the total damages are set at $740,000. Each year, that amount goes up by $15,000. Even so, some health care practitioners say the suits in an area as risky and litigious as birth are eating into insurance pots and forcing scrutiny of tight budgets.
“If these lawsuits continue, they are putting us in a position [where] we won’t have the insurance [to pay for them] because we are self-insured. If they continue to use up the money for the insurance, and one department is using all that money, the board of trustees has emphatically stated that we can’t let one department, … OB-GYN, drag the hospital down,” said Dr. Cyrus Lawyer, medical director of the metropolitan practice at Mercy’s Family Childbirth and Children’s Center in Baltimore, according to CNS.
The birth-injury fund is worth considering, should the task force uncover more than anecdotal evidence that Maryland could lose birthing services — and as long as the expense to taxpayers is kept at a minimum.
At present, parents whose children are injured or die must roll the dice in court. While the payoff can be can be huge, winning those court cases a payoff is far from guaranteed and really only of benefit to malpractice attorneys. Naturally, trial lawyers are objecting to the legislation. However, programs in Virginia and Florida, after which the Maryland bill is modeled, have reduced malpractice premiums and been easier financially for affected families, according to a February article in The Baltimore Sun.
This fund would create a reliable, lifelong source of compensation for parents, reduce the risk hospitals have to bear, retain a crucial component of women’s health care and perhaps even attract good doctors to the practice who were otherwise put off by fear of liability.
The $23.1 million fund would capitalized by annual premiums from Maryland hospitals and obstetrical physicians as well as annual surcharges paid by certain insurers, according to a fiscal analysis by the state. Two administrative law judges would adjudicate claims, and by signing on, parents would not be able to pursue litigation for their child’s injuries. Parents would have up to 21 years to make a claim for compensation, under the bill as filed this year.
This is an idea worth pursuing.