Legislature Dumps Mandatory Medical Arbitration

Legislature Dumps Mandatory Medical Arbitration

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- The Legislature is moving to make medical arbitration a choice of patients, backing away from a law passed last year that lets doctors reject patients who refuse to sign away their right to sue.

The Utah House voted 64-10 Monday to approve a new arbitration system. The bill returns to the Senate for concurrence on an amendment. Gov. Olene Walker is expected to sign the measure.

Mandatory arbitration turned into a public relations disaster in Utah last year after Intermountain Health Care demanded 170,000 patients sign arbitration agreements or go elsewhere.

Utah's largest health provider "rolled this out in a pretty ham-handed manner. It no longer became political feasible for them to require mandatory arbitration," said Rep. Stephen Urquhart, R-St. George.

"This at least keeps arbitration breathing a little bit," said Urquhart, a lawyer who criticized "lottery-style verdicts" in the courts for fueling health costs.

This year's Senate Bill 245 "makes arbitration entirely voluntarily. That puts the patient in charge," he said.

It also allows patients to demand cheaper mediation followed by binding arbitration if mediation doesn't work. A three-member arbitration panel would consist of one person chosen by the patient, one by the physician and a third jointly selected by those two arbitrators.

The House changed that method of selection, which under the Senate version had the patient and doctor, not their arbitrators, choosing a third arbitrator. The House sent the bill back to the Senate with that change.

The new measure shortens to 10 days from 30 days the time a patient gets to reverse a signed arbitration agreement. That was a concession to doctors who have "given away a tremendous amount" in negotiations over a new law, Urquhart said.

While attorneys usually cover the costs of malpractice litigation -- and take a third of any award -- patients opting for arbitration will have to share the out-of-pocket cost of arbitrators, who generally charge $300 an hour each, Urquhart said.

"You are talking some money, but the beauty of arbitration is it's so much faster than litigation," he said.

In another change, patient and doctor can agree to hire just one arbitrator to cut costs and settle a case.

IHC rescinded its forced arbitration policy a month ago after a highly publicized battle with patients' advocacy groups and trial lawyers. Legislators held discussions with IHC representatives to forge a compromise.

The law enacted last year allowed doctors to refuse treatment to non-emergency patients unless they agreed that any malpractice claims would be resolved by arbitration instead of lawsuits. IHC and the Utah Medical Association argued that arbitration was a quicker and cheaper solution that would curb the soaring costs of medical malpractice insurance.

"One or two lawyers balked and stirred up a faux grass-roots movement," said Urquhart. "I think we had a good law from last year. It's unfortunate for whatever reason we're backing away from it."

(Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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