Senators debate cap on Malpractice damages

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BATON ROUGE — Senators raised questions at a hearing on Thursday about whether damage award caps in medical malpractice cases are too low and whether patients are being fully compensated for extra medical care.

The state Medical Malpractice Act capped damage awards to patients at $500,000 in the early 1990s, and the cap has never been adjusted for inflation.

Sen. Rick Ward, R-Port Allen and the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, asked if the cap needed to be raised.

Ken Schnauder, executive director of the Louisiana Patient’s Compensation Fund, acknowledged that “the value of $500,000 in 1975 is $110,000 today” due to inflation and that there are some claims where people are not fully compensated.

But he also provided 15 years of historical data showing that even in one of the highest award years, 2012, the average payout of $349,000 still fell well below the fund’s $400,000 portion of the cap.

Health care providers pay the first $100,000 of any judgments, and the fund pays additional amounts up to $400,000.

Schnauder estimated that 11,000 of the state’s 17,000 licensed doctors are enrolled in the fund, which is the “excess insurer” for doctors who provide proof of liability coverage and pay annual enrollment fees.

Future medical expenses ordered by treating physicians–like handicap-accessible vans, electric wheelchairs and prescriptions–are not included under the capped awards.

Sen. “Jay” Luneau, D-Alexandria, questioned Schnauder about constituents’ complaints that future medical expenses had been denied by the fund. Luneau said that some of the patients had to turn to Medicaid for coverage, shifting the costs to the state.

Schnauder responded that the fund approves future medical expenses unless they are “not medically necessary or excessive.”

Schnauder acknowledged that the fund had challenged medical claims in the past that he thought were medically unnecessary or excessive. But, he said, the courts consistently ruled against the fund in such cases.

Now, he said, “If doctor says, they need it, we issue it.”

By Joby Richard, LSU Manship School News Service