Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – An agreement to update New Mexico’s new medical malpractice law and ensure independent physicians can still work at hospitals after Dec. 31 survived a House vote Friday after Republican leaders initially slammed the proposal.
The bill passed on a 63-2 vote after Democrats accepted a Republican-sponsored amendment, allowing the measure to secure the two-thirds support necessary to take effect immediately if Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signs it.
Republican leaders had initially withheld their support – a move that would have blocked the emergency clause and kept the bill from going into effect for 90 days.
Their support came after Democrats agreed to support an amendment by Republican Rep. Rebecca Dow of Truth or Consequences. Her change delayed for an extra year one component of the medical malpractice law.
The proposal will now head to the Senate.
Medical providers and others say passage of the bill is necessary to ensure that independent physicians can continue practicing at hospitals after Dec. 31 and allow small outpatient clinics to stay open. They won’t be able to secure medical malpractice insurance, they said, without the technical changes to the law outlined in the proposal.
“If we do not act today, in 22 days, we will lose many of our independent health care providers,” said Rep. Dayan Hochman-Vigil, an Albuquerque Democrat and co-sponsor of the legislation.
A two-thirds vote of each chamber is necessary for the bill to take effect immediately with an emergency clause rather than in 90 days.
House Minority Leader James Townsend of Artesia and other leading Republicans in the House blasted the proposal as inadequate. He suggested repealing the whole law altogether, not updating it as proposed by a coalition of physicians and lawyers.
“It’s not unanimous in the field of medicine that this fix is the right one,” Townsend said.
But he supported the bill after Dow’s amendment pushed the effective date of a new cap on legal damages for outpatient clinics to 2024 rather than 2023.
The proposed legislation was crafted by a coalition of independent physicians, medical practices and trial lawyers.
They say it’s necessary because insurance carriers have raised questions about how to interpret some of the definitions in the new Medical Malpractice Act – much of which is set to take effect Jan. 1.
The new act won bipartisan support from legislators earlier this year after hospitals, physicians, lawyers and patient advocates reached agreement on the changes.
But insurance carriers have refused to provide insurance to some independent physicians and independent outpatient clinics, questioning how to interpret some language in the act to determine their legal liability.
Despite the lopsided vote, the bill created plenty of political drama.
In an interview and comments in a legislative hearing, House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, accused Townsend of threatening the emergency deal initially because he wanted changes in a separate redistricting bill to protect Republican Rep. Jane Powdrell-Culbert of Corrales.
“This bill is being held hostage in the interest of a single member of the state House,” Egolf said.
The proposed district lines in the Corrales and Rio Rancho area, Egolf said, match a proposal by the Citizen Redistricting Committee. They weren’t crafted by Democrats, he said, to create any partisan advantage.
The proposed House redistricting measure, House Bill 8, would establish 45 Democratic-leaning districts, the same number of seats Democrats now hold. It passed the House late Friday on a 43-23 vote without the changes sought by Republicans, and it goes next to the Senate.
Egolf said that if Republicans wanted to start changing the proposal to protect a member, it would open up the whole map for discussion and invalidate the principle of sticking with a House map crafted largely by the citizen committee.
Townsend acknowledged seeking map changes for Powdrell-Culbert. It’s his duty, he said, to work on behalf of his caucus members, especially a long-serving member who has been reelected many times.
But he denied that his vote on the medical malpractice bill would hinge on the redistricting decision.
The medical malpractice proposal was added by Lujan Grisham to the agenda of the special session earlier this week.
The move came after independent physicians and their medical practices – including Southwest Gastroenterology and Southwest Endoscopy – warned legislators that they expected to close their offices or curtail operations Dec. 31 because of an inability to get insurance.
The trouble was rooted in language defining who in the health care system should be subject to a $4 million cap on certain legal damages and who faces a $750,000 cap.
The legislation approved earlier this year – supported 36-5 in the Senate and on a voice vote in the House – made hospitals subject to the higher cap and put independent physicians under the lower cap.
Insurance carriers later questioned how to treat independent doctors who sometimes work at a hospital or who own and operate small clinics.
The legislation earlier this year was initially opposed vigorously by Republicans, but the final version – after agreement by hospitals, patients and others – picked up bipartisan support.