Medical Malpractice Reform Bill Heads to Governor after Senate Approval

April 26, 2008

The State Senate has approved and sent to the governor major tort reform legislation aimed at weeding out meritless medical malpractice lawsuits. Medical malpractice costs have been a factor in pushing up the cost of health care nationwide. The Department of Commerce and Insurance Annual Reports on Medical Malpractice have shown that more than 80% of the lawsuits filed in Tennessee lack sufficient merit to proceed.

“This is a significant reform bill,” said Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Mae Beavers (R-Mt. Juliet). “I am hopeful that it will help curtail the spiraling cost of health care. It will also help restore confidence in providers that they can invest in their patients' care rather than lawsuits."

Last year the legislation was heard in the Senate Judiciary Committee and passed the Senate, but it hit roadblocks in the House of Representatives regarding which medical experts can testify in malpractice trials, called the “locality rule.” The bill was deferred until this year after an agreement could not be reached before the close of the 2007 legislative session. That provision has now been removed from the bill.

Key provisions in the bill include:

Notice would be provided at least two months before a lawsuit is filed to help resolve the case before it goes to court.

It sets up a process requiring pre-filing notification to each medical provider who may be named in a medical malpractice action at least 60 days prior to filing a complaint.

It contains a notification requirement to require attorneys to have an independent medical expert evaluate the merits of a case before filing suit.

The bill establishes that all parties are entitled to the plaintiff’s medical records within 30 days of a request for the records.

It requires that within 90 days after a complaint is filed the plaintiff’s attorneys would have to attest that they have consulted with a medical expert who is competent to testify in a Tennessee court and has reviewed the medical records or any other pertinent information.

Medical experts must declare that there is a good faith basis to maintain the malpractice action, and the defendant is responsible for following a similar procedure when alleging that a non-party is responsible.

Sponsors of the bill have been working on the legislation since 2001. The medical malpractice liability act was last amended in 1975.

Legislation that maintains Tennessee’s dedicated road fund advanced last week with approval from the Senate Finance Committee. The bill would prohibit the diversion of gas tax money through the state’s budget, or appropriations bill, without authorization from separate legislation to assure full debate of the issue. Currently, the dedicated road fund can be diverted through a line in the appropriations bill, which is a much easier route to raid the funds.

“This bill would put our state back in the position we were before 2004 to keep the state from easily diverting gas tax money for other state government purposes,” said Senator Mae Beavers (R-Mt. Juliet). “The current law does not contain the appropriate checks and balances to ensure that any diversion of the funds is fully debated in our Transportation Committee, as it would in the normal legislative process.”

The Department of Transportation only spends the funds that are available through its dedicated revenues, gas taxes and highway user fees, and federal funding. Called “dedicated funding” since users pay for the roads through gas taxes and fees, a portion of the gasoline tax also goes to cities and counties in Tennessee to fund local roads. This dedicated revenue system was put into place when the gas tax was raised to fund the road program. Over the last five or six years, $280 million in road funds has been funneled from the gas tax to meet other state government expenditures.

“I certainly understand why the public is skeptical,” Beavers continued. “The people of Tennessee believe that this is a dedicated fund and they need to know that when they fill up heir gas tanks that 21.4 cents will be used for the purpose for which it was originally intended.”

Legislation had been approved to divert funds from many dedicated and reserve accounts to meet other expenses during the financial pinch in 2001. However, all other reserve or dedicated funds which were diverted to meet other expenses during the past financial crisis had been restored to the normal legislative process, except for the road fund.

“Our federal highway transportation fund is declining and the legislature must plan for future needs based on state revenues,” she added. “There is much concern regarding the future of the gas tax due to the rising cost of gasoline, could erode Tennessee’s ability to provide the repairs and infrastructure needed for the state’s road system.”

“It is very important that we keep our dedicated road fund intact in order to maintain our road system at a time when road money is declining,” she continued. “This is now catching up with us as our communities are growing and we don’t have the road money to keep up with transportation demands.”

The Senate Finance Committee has voted to begin the process for divesting Tennessee’s pension fund from having any holding with companies that have substantial operations in nations determined by the U.S. State Department to be state-sponsors of terrorism. The bill requires the state’s Treasurer to compile a list of the investments with ties to terrorist countries. Sponsors say it is a step towards implementing a policy to instruct the executive director to divest of those holdings.

Growing concern over genocide in Sudan and countries that sponsor terrorism has prompted state legislatures across the nation to consider actions to limit or eliminate state investments in firms doing business with such countries. Twenty-four states have already adopted policies of divestment from Sudan. Tennessee has a $32 billion pension fund which serves state employees, public school teachers, and many local government employees.

Issues in Brief

Drunk Driver Registry – Members of the Finance Committee approved a bill to create a registry of persons who have two or more DUI convictions with the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, similar to that of the Sex Offender Registry. The offender would be placed on the Registry if their license has been revoked or suspended due to a drunk driving offense. Their name would be removed if their license is reinstated, within 45 days. The Registry would serve as a strong deterrent to driving under the influence and would make drunk drivers think about the consequences of their actions. In 2006, there were 1,287 fatalities on Tennessee roads with 509 due to alcohol-related crashes.

Handguns – The full Senate has approved a bill that changes present law by making it a Class E felony for a person who has been convicted of any felony to possess a handgun. The bill broadens the Class E felony offense of unlawful possession of a handgun to include a person with any prior felony conviction.

Notary public – The State Senate gave approval to legislation this week to require any person who is a notary public to be a U.S. citizen or legal permanent resident. The bill now goes to the governor for his signature.

Consumers – The Senate has passed legislation to amend the Tennessee Consumer Protection Act to protect citizens from businesses who might misrepresent the geographic location of a business. The bill applies to businesses that misrepresent their location in the local telephone directory or on the Internet.

Multi-Modal Transportation – The Senate Finance Committee approved legislation this week to provide for greater coordination of transportation services through the Department of Transportation’s multi-modal transportation system. The measure aims to provide efficiency between the various departments utilizing transportation services to stop duplication of efforts.

Sex offenders – The full Senate has voted to approve legislation that would provide that if a sex offender changes names or provides a different name than is listed on their original registration form, they must report all names to the registry. The bill would make it clear that sex offenders cannot change their name to skirt the law regarding sex offender registry requirements.

Sanctuary Cities -- The Senate State and Local Government Committee has approved legislation to cut off economic and community grant money to any Tennessee city that might declare itself a "sanctuary city" for illegal aliens. A sanctuary city is a term given to a city in the United States that follows certain practices that protect illegal aliens. Thirty-eight cities in the U.S. have been recognized as sanctuary cities. However, many sources have identified over 200 city or county governments nationwide as having practiced such policies. The bill is a preemptive strike to guard against adoption of any policy by cities in the state to provide a sanctuary for illegal aliens in Tennessee.

DUI fines -- Legislation that would increase DUI fines by $250 has been approved by the Senate Finance Committee last week. Part of the money would be kept in the local communities where the crime occurred for housing offenders, while the other half would be used for alcohol or drug addiction treatment. The bill is expected to provide $1.5 million to the state and $1.5 million to local governments.

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