Bill to disclose malpractice data gets scaled back

  • Article by: RICHARD MERYHEW and GLENN HOWATT , Star Tribune staff writers
  • Updated: March 13, 2012 - 10:31 PM

Minnesota Medical Association pushed to exclude court settlements.

An effort at the State Capitol to give consumers more information about the malpractice histories of doctors has been scaled back under concerted lobbying by the Minnesota Medical Association (MMA).

A bill introduced last month would have required the state Board of Medical Practice to post more information on its website regarding the discipline and malpractice records of doctors who practice in Minnesota.

The legislation was introduced by Rep. Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Big Lake, in response to a Star Tribune investigation that raised questions about the medical board's record for disciplining physicians and its lack of transparency in providing information about problem practitioners to the public.

But a version moving through House committees this week narrows the amount of information the board would be required to make available. Instead of posting all malpractice data, including out-of-court settlements, the board would be required only to post malpractice judgments rendered by a judge or jury. That's less than 2 percent of all malpractice payouts, one authority estimates.

MMA officials called the amended bill "significantly improved" in a recent news release, arguing that malpractice information can often be misleading and isn't a good indicator of the quality of care provided by a given physician.

"There are a lot of reasons for settlements, and sometimes they have nothing to do with the competency of the practitioner," said Dave Renner, MMA director of state and federal legislation.

But a leading malpractice authority said the amended bill would hide large quantities of malpractice data that could be useful to consumers.

Roughly 97 percent of malpractice payouts in the past decade were accomplished through settlements, according to Robert E. Oshel, a retired research analyst for the National Practioner Data Bank, which tracks malpractice settlements and disciplinary actions against doctors. Only 11 involved jury awards or court judgments.

"If only court judgments are made public, the public won't get much information," Oshel said.

The Star Tribune investigation showed that Minnesota lags behind many states in disclosing information, including data on malpractice judgments and settlements. Minnesota also doesn't disclose whether doctors have been disciplined by regulators in other states or lost their privileges to work in hospitals for surgical mistakes and other problems -- information provided in 13 states.

Kiffmeyer cites 'fairness issue'

The amended version of Kiffmeyer's bill would require the board, and other state health licensing boards, to post all felony or gross misdemeanor convictions within the past 10 years and disciplinary or corrective actions or restriction of privileges in any jurisdiction. It would also require the boards to conduct criminal background checks.

Kiffmeyer said she agreed to changes in the bill in part because malpractice data can be misleading -- settlements are sometimes reached at the urging of an insurer to avoid prolonged court battles, often with no admission of negligence. Simply posting the settlements without case details could harm a physician's reputation, she said, and do little to help the public distinguish good practitioners from the bad.

"How do you provide context for consumers?" she said. "It's a fairness issue here."

Kiffmeyer also said the issue is complicated by the fact that most out-of-court settlements are confidential.

About 40 percent of all doctors are sued at least once for malpractice, but less than a quarter are sued twice or more, according to the American Medical Association.

But Oshel said that without settlement information, consumers would find it hard to track physicians with a history of trouble. National Practitioner Data records show that since 1990, 286 Minnesota physicians had two or more settlements and 17 had five or more.

Chris Messerly, a malpractice attorney in Minneapolis, said posting only malpractice judgments would also deprive the public of information about "the very worst instances of malpractice, because the ... most egregious cases are the ones that are settled."

richm@startribune.com • 612-673-4425 howatt@startribune.com • 612-673-7192

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