Truth is, the Utah Legislature enters its fourth week without much fanfare about what's happened the past three weeks.
Controversial stands on banning abortions and encouraging the U.S. Congress to consider getting the country out of the United Nations have been passed, along with more than five dozen resolutions, but the big-ticket issues of state budget, parental rights, and a hate crimes bill still remain in the future, even as lawmakers prepare to hit the halfway mark in this year's session.
Legislators were still talking Monday morning about Friday's announcement on medical arbitration. The bill, unveiled at a press conference Friday afternoon, will remove mandatory requirements from medical arbitration agreements signed by Utah patients and make other changes and clarifications to the states' year-old arbitration policy. Bill sponsor Sen. Leonard Blackham, R-Moroni, stated: "This bill will make the policy more understandable and more balanced for patients. Most Utahns understand that runaway lawsuits are starting to reduce the availability of medical care. They want us to bring the lawsuits under control, but there was some concern about how our current law accomplished that. This bill addresses those concerns."
"We are pleased that we've been able to work cooperatively with the medical community to resolve the concerns that have arisen out of last year's statute," added Senate President Al Mansell, R-Midvale. "We believe, with most Utahns, that malpractice disputes must be kept under control but want to do it in a way that is fair and makes sense to patients. This bill is a good step toward that goal and has the support of the medical community."
Aimed largely, though not directly, at Intermountain Health Care's efforts to have their patient-members sign an arbitration agreement before treatments, SB245 would make several key changes to Utah's laws on medical dispute resolution. They include:
--Health care providers will no longer be able to decline a patient just because the patient won't sign an arbitration agreement. This has always been true for emergency care, but the new law extends that policy to non-emergency care. Under SB 245, medical arbitration will be voluntary.
--Patients who agree to arbitration will have power to require the provider to enter mediation before arbitration. Mediation has always been an option and is often used in these kinds of cases. It is a very low-cost, non-confrontational method of reaching a settlement.
--The right of patients to engage an attorney in mediation and arbitration proceedings will be made explicit. Patients currently have that right but the new law spells it out explicitly.
--It will be made clear to patients that arbitration agreements only apply to events that happen after the agreement is signed and only apply to the specific patient(s) named in the agreement. Entire families are not covered just because a parent or spouse signs an agreement.
--Parties can save costs by agreeing to use only one jointly-appointed arbitrator rather than three. Usually arbitration panels consist of three arbitrators, one selected by each of the parties and one jointly selected presiding arbitrator. S.B. 245 allows the parties to agree to use one mutually-appointed arbitrator.
-- The final decision of the arbitrators will become public record. SB 245 requires that the ruling, including the name of the doctor and the amount of any award, be entered as a judgment in district court.
An IHC representative at the press conference confided that IHC had worked with Senate leaders in pounding out the measure, which could help defer a lot of public criticism that the insurance provider has taken since the issue came to the forefront late last year.