A Florida House judiciary committee passed a bill Friday to grant greater protections for health care providers in medical malpractice cases.

House Bill 385 would grant “sovereign immunity” to providers as “government agents,” allow malpractice defendants to hold ex parte interviews with physicians and adopt stricter standards of proof of medical negligence.

State Reps. Darren Soto, D-Orlando, and Richard Steinberg, D-Miami Beach, voted “no” on the bill.

The grant of sovereign immunity would mean medical malpractice claimants could seek payment from the state, which would be reimbursed by the health care provider. The immunity puts a limit on the amount repaid by the provider — up to $200,000 for a single person and $300,000 for a single incident. Any amount exceeding the caps would require approval of the Legislature.

Florida Justice Association Executive Director Debra Henley said the bill would create a significant cost to the state, “expanding the role of governtment in our health care system.”

With Florida’s malpractice insurance rates among the highest in the nation, one of the bill’s sponsors — state Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Shalimar — said reducing liability for doctors would help meet the demand for emergency care in the state.

A Florida Office of Insurance Regulation report (.pdf) claims that 2003 legislation capping non-economic medical malpractice damages has “assisted with the solvency of medical malpractice carriers, and directly contributed to lowering the defense cost and containment ratios in the State of Florida.”

The report also pointed out that some specialized providers, including podiatrists and dentists targeted by H.B. 385, experienced increases in 2010.

The provision for ex parte interviews would reverse a statute enacted in 1988 requiring a patient’s written consent for medical records to be shared with a defendant. A prospective defendant would only need to provide a 10-day notice before interviewing the claimant’s health care providers under the new measure.

The committee’s staff analysis points out the formal, costly route of obtaining the claimant’s history for defense in a report (.pdf) of the Governor’s Select Task Force on Healthcare Professional Liability Insurance in 2003: ”It is often necessary to interview several of the plaintiff’s treating healthcare providers in order to acquire this information [medical history, current condition]. But, because formal discovery is an expensive and time consuming process, defendants are often unable to adequately gather this information in preparation of their defense.”

A similar measure, Senate Bill 614, was filed in the Legislature’s other chamber.

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