Mandatory expert testimony prior to filing a grievance for Pennsylvania medical malpractice lawsuit is one of two reasons medical malpractice lawsuits have declined steadily in Pennsylvania since 2003, according to a recently released report.
Filings in the Commonwealth fell 39 percent in the past seven years, however they increased 60 percent in the Columbia-Montour judicial district, according to an Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts report.
That’s because a second 2003 change by the Pennsylvania State Supreme Court required medical malpractice lawsuits to be brought only in the county where the alleged mistake took place. The Columbia-Montour judicial district is home to Geisinger Medical Center, in Danville, and Bloomsburg Hospital.
Before the Pennsylvania State Supreme Court enacted the changes, medical malpractice attorneys representing personal injury victims would shop around for venues likely to be more sympathetic, said Frank Trembulak, executive vice president and chief operating officer of Geisinger Health System in Danville.
“The medical malpractice lawyer would try to take the case to Philadelphia or Wilkes-Barre,” he said.
Statewide, there were 8,195 medical malpractice filings from 2000 to 2002, an average of 2,731 per year. There were only 11,722 in the next seven years, an average of 1,674.
“The sustained decline in the number of medical malpractice claims filed … is an encouraging sign,” said Chief Justice of Pennsylvania Ronald D. Castille. “The downward trend is the product of a direction we set seven years ago to address a complex and challenging issue of concern to all Pennsylvanians.
“In the recent health care debate nationally, there is an insistent call for reform of the handling of medical malpractice cases within the judicial system.” Castille said, “Justice for our citizens is still being delivered where patients are truly injured by medical negligence.”
Northumberland County Judge Charles Saylor said he has about the same number of medical malpractice cases on his docket, though many are older just making their way to trial.
However, he was not surprised by the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts report because the two steps put in place by the Supreme Court are making a difference, he said.
The first change required medical malpractice attorneys to obtain a certificate of merit from a medical professional that establishes the medical procedures in a case fall outside of acceptable standards.
“This requires someone who is bringing a medical malpractice lawsuit to file a certificate that basically certifies that it has been reviewed by an expert,” Saylor said, “that there is merit to the malpractice case being filed and it is going forward. It’s requires expert testimony.”
Potential medical malpractice cases can now be dismissed at an early stage and eliminate cost and expense, Saylor said.
“The big change is the frivolous personal injury cases will be weeded out early,” Saylor said. “It would limit the number of malpractice cases being filed.”
Many medical malpractice claims involve jury time, on average at least five days, Saylor said, and reducing the number of negligence cases lowers the burden and expense on the court system.
“It’s pretty much in the last 10 years or less that all the emphasis and data and learning of patient safety has occurred,” Ginsburg said. “Both physicians and all providers are working really hard to learn more about and provide care.”
Many hospitals and physicians in Pennsylvania moved into self-funded insurance programs because tort reform litigation was on the rise, Trembulak said.
Tort reform refers to proposed changes in the civil justice system that would reduce litigation or medical malpractice damages awarded. Tort is a system for compensating wrongs and harm done by one party to another person, property or protected interests.
“Pennsylvania was the poster child for a bad environment,” Trembulak said. “A lot of insurance agencies withdrew from Pennsylvania and forced hospitals and physicians to move into self-insured programs. A fair number of those have done that.”
Because of high rates, and while many Pennsylvania hospitals are great educational facilities, Trembulak said, many medical school students graduate and leave the commonwealth.
“Pennsylvania is one of the states that educates the highest number of physicians,” Trembulak said. “As they graduate, there’s been an increase in the number that leave the state because it is not physician-friendly. Physicians in private practice, because of the economic downturn, can not afford premiums, especially in rural areas, and given up and moved to other states.”
While the numbers have dropped across Pennsylvania, the Geisinger official said there is more than can be done.
“I think we’ve seen an improvement in medical malpractice in the state,” he said, “but there’s still plenty of opportunities to further improve the process.”