FRANKFORT — A Senate committee on Wednesday approved a bill that would establish "medical review panels" to consider the merit of malpractice, abuse or neglect lawsuits against medical providers.
Senate Bill 6, which proceeds to the full Senate, would require that lawsuits pass before a panel of three "health care providers" before they can go to trial. The panel could take up to six months to decide whether a suit's claim has merit.
While suits could proceed in court even if the panel decided they were without merit, the review panel's opinion could be entered into a trial as evidence.
Similar versions of the bill, including one in the 2014 session, have passed Kentucky's Republican-led Senate but have died in the Democratic-led House.
The sponsor of SB 6, Sen. Ralph Alvarado, R-Winchester, is a doctor. Alvarado told the Senate Health and Welfare Committee on Wednesday that a glut of "meritless claims" by "greedy personal-injury lawyers" has made Kentucky "toxic" for doctors, hospitals and nursing homes. Defending yourself against a lawsuit, even if it's dismissed by a judge, can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, Alvarado said.
Testifying against the bill, personal-injury attorney Vanessa Cantley of the Kentucky Justice Association said surprisingly few lawsuits are filed against medical providers in Kentucky. There are about 2,700 deaths annually in the state due to preventable medical error but fewer than 500 claims filed for medical malpractice or patient abuse or neglect, in part because it's so expensive to pursue that kind of litigation, Cantley said.
"The data tells us that medical negligence lawsuits comprise less than one-half of 1 percent of all civil litigation in the state," Cantley said.
For a sickly nursing home patient in her 80s, having to wait six months for a review panel to mull her abuse or neglect case could run out the clock, Cantley said.
Sen. Reginald Thomas, D-Lexington, who is a lawyer, opposed the bill. Thomas said Kentucky law already includes penalties for people who file frivolous lawsuits. Alvarado acknowledged that's correct, but he said the penalties aren't enforced as frequently as they should be.