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CHEYENNE — A legislative committee this week will consider a change in how medical review panels operate.

 The proposal to be considered by the Joint Interim Committee on Labor, Health and Social Services during a meeting Monday and Tuesday in Cheyenne would specify that decisions made by the medical review panels are not admissible in court.

 The current law gives judges the discretion to admit panel decisions.

 Some attorneys involved in these cases think the current law is vague, said Senior Assistant Attorney General Eric Easton, executive director of the medical review panel.

 “This will make it clear” and will remove any uncertainty, he said of the proposed change.

 The medical review panel program began in 2005.

 Easton said the only case he knows of where a judge ruled on a medical review panel decision was a 2007 federal court case.

 It involved a Wyoming State Penitentiary inmate, Craig Blumhagen, who sued prison medical officials for medical malpractice.

 The case went through a Wyoming medical review panel. Federal District Judge Alan Johnson refused to admit the panel’s decision, Easton said.

 The purpose of the review panels is to filter out frivolous medical malpractice claims, save the costs of litigation and foster a reduction in medical malpractice premiums.

 “The medical review panel has not been effective. Wyoming is no exception. That’s been true in most of the states where it has been tried,” said Sen. Charles Scott, chairman of the Senate Committee on Labor, Health and Social Services.

 He said the proposed change in the law is a technicality that is unlikely to result in more hearings before panels.

 Scott said insurance companies would rather settle than fight so the cases become a contest of “dueling attorneys.”

 Robert Tiedeken, a Cheyenne trial lawyer, said he doesn’t believe the change would have any major impact.

 “From my experience, I don’t think it would do anything because all the claims I have filed, the physicians or health care providers have not answered. They just waived it,” Tiedeken said, referring to the medical review panel hearing.

 Lawyers who defend the health care providers, he said, don’t want to submit their clients to any discovery.

 “So they get to learn in detail the theory of the plaintiff’s case very early and then they just waive the medical review panel hearing,” he said.

 Tiedeken said he always has been a proponent of early, mandatory mediation of these cases. “But it has to be in control of the courts, not some administrative body,” he added.

 “I think the courts do a pretty good job, and there are studies to support that. The bad cases get weeded out without the medical panel,” he said.

 Nevertheless, he said, the medical review panel is worthwhile if it gets rid of even one claim filed by a person who shouldn’t be pursuing it “but just won’t take no from the legal community.”

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 According to a report from Easton on the medical review panel Web site, 148 claims were filed between July 1, 2005 — when the panel began — and May 26, 2009. That’s about 40 cases per year.

 A total of 313 health care providers have been named. Although all types of health care providers have been named, acute-care hospitals and medical clinics top the list, followed by OB/GYN, orthopedics and general surgeons, dentists, chiropractors and nurses.

 Cases have been filed in every county in the state.

 More than 60 percent of the claims filed with the panel are concluded by joint waivers of the panel by the parties, or nonanswer/waiver by the health care provider.

 In addition, a significant number of claims are dismissed, possibly because of the claimant’s inability to find a supporting expert witness, a settlement of the case or some other reason, the report said.

 Easton wrote that it is probably premature to try to measure the impact on the panel after four years.

 According to the Wyoming Medical Society, Wyoming medical malpractice insurance premiums have not decreased since 2005 and remain the highest in the region. The Wyoming Insurance Department “Summary of Claims against Wyoming Health Care Providers” has not yet shown a trend in the number or severity of medical malpractice claims.

 Easton wrote that his office thinks that the medical review panel process impacts 31 percent of the cases filed, either through a settlement or dismissal of some or all of the named health care providers.

 

Contact Joan Barron at joan.barron@trib.com or 307-632-1244.

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