House committee approves bill to keep doctors’ peer reviews from being used in malpractice lawsuits

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By Melissa Patrick
Kentucky Health News

A bill to keep doctors’ reviews of other doctors from being used in medical-malpractice lawsuits has passed a House committee and moves to the full House, where a similar bill stalled out last year.

Rep. Addia Wuchner, R-Florence, chair of the Health and Family Services Committee, told the panel that Kentucky is one of only two states that don’t apply this privilege to medical peer reviews. She said protections in her bill will ultimately improve health care in the state.

“Medical peer review is an industry-wide practice that allows health-care professionals to openly, honestly and candidly discuss their performances with their colleagues and their teammates and learn from their experiences so that we can improve healthcare and outcomes for all patients,” she said.

Dr. James Borders, chief medical officer for Baptist Health Lexington, assured the committee that hospital peer reviews are not an attempt to conceal anything.

“When it comes to the routine, day-to-day care of patients, we need to have the openness and flexibility to ask colleagues as to how they would do something better,” he said. “I think of what a chilling effect it would have to think that every comment made in those kinds of conversations would be in some way open to legal challenge.”

Wes Butler, a health-care lawyer, explained that House Bill 4 was designed to address a state Supreme Court decision in the 1990s that peer-review privilege in Kentucky should not extend to malpractice suits.

Senator Ralph Alvarado, R-Winchester, proposed a similar bill that made it to the House floor last year but didn’t get a vote, largely because of a floor amendment by Rep. Chad McCoy, R-Bardstown, to allow statements of fact in peer reviews to be used in court.

McCoy, a member of the health committee, voted for Wuchner’s bill, told Kentucky Health News that, “Cheese pizza is better than no pizza.” He added that the language in the committee substitute that assures providers who are claiming the privilege are only doing so for safety and quality purposes, in the same way that the federal law requires, allowed him to vote for the bill.

“I am still fearful here,” he said, noting that a doctor’s testimony and peer review might conflict. “It didn’t go where I wanted it to go, but it is an improvement and it’s an important bill and like I said, ‘cheese pizza’. . . . It’s worth it to give up on the privilege if we can get hospitals to participate and try to make themselves better for everybody out there.”

Rhonda Hatfield-Jeffers, a plaintiff’s lawyer from Somerset, was the only person who spoke against the bill. She said that while she appreciated the changes, “We want to make sure no factual statements are hidden.”

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