Alaska legislators hoping to reduce insurance rates for doctors approved a measure Thursday to cap medical malpractice awards at $250,000.
The current limit is $400,000 for noneconomic damages, which include pain, suffering, disfigurement, inconvenience and loss of an enjoyment of life.
The only exception the new bill allows would be for cases of "recklessness or intentional misconduct."
Senate Bill 67 is on its way to becoming a law as the House passed the bill Thursday night and the Senate approved it last month.
The bill, also known as this year's tort reform, aims to ease the burden on doctors who pay high medical malpractice insurance rates. If rates continue to rise, doctors would be in the position to retire, relocate or restrict service, said Rep. Mike Kelly, R-Fairbanks.
"Alaska is 46th in the number of doctors per capita," said Kelly, adding that it takes months to schedule an appointment with a specialist in his district.
The measure was narrowly approved with a vote of 22-18 as many Democrats and Republicans argued that the cap doesn't protect the patient.
Rep. Bruce Weyhrauch, R-Juneau, said lawmakers cannot put a price on someone's sense of smell, sight or "ability to make love to their spouse."
"Sometimes I think $1 million is not enough," he said. The amount of $1 million is the current limit for severe cases such as disfigurement. But the reform bill asks to lower that amount to $400,000.
Jim Jordan, Alaska State Medical Association, testified earlier that insurance rates have risen for physicians in Alaska since 2001.
Kelly went on to explain on the House floor that the increase leads to hikes in medical costs and reasons for doctors to either leave the state or not come here for employment. He also said Alaska is on the verge of losing its two major medical insurance providers if Alaska does not follow the examples of other states.
In 1976, California capped its malpractice lawsuits at $250,000 and as a result its insurance rates have gone up a third less than the national average.
Kelly's comments were then picked apart by opponents of the bill. A Legislative Research Agency study presented by Rep. Les Gara, D-Anchorage, found that the state is gaining doctors every year. In 1990, some 1,038 physicians were in Alaska and in 2003 the number was 2,321.
The study also said Alaska has 38 companies that provide medical malpractice insurance.
Andrew Petty can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org