Doctors warn Nevada bill will push physicians out, attorneys argue patient protection

LAS VEGAS (KSNV) — A controversial bill (AB404) in the Nevada Legislature is scheduled to have its first hearing at 8 a.m. on Tuesday morning in the Assembly Judiciary Committee.

The medical community said it will increase the costs to operate in Nevada so much that many will be forced to close business or move to another state.

Trial attorneys said it will finally make the costs for medical malpractice lawsuits worthwhile enough to actually take on those cases.

AB404 is sponsored by the Assembly Judiciary Committee; and as such, was exempt from previous legislative deadlines. Tuesday will be its first hearing.

The bill will increase the caps for medical malpractice lawsuits from $350,000 to $2.5 million on noneconomic damages a plaintiff may recover. These are damages that don’t include lost wages or medical costs.

It will also increase the statute of limitations from 1-3 years to 2-4 years. AB404 is a sort of compromise bill from an earlier, more extreme version in AB209, which would have eliminated the caps altogether. AB209 died after not receiving a work session.

“With that bill [AB209], it would have fully repealed all of the medical malpractice that was on the ballot initiative back in 2004,” said Assemblywoman Brittney Miller, chair of the Judiciary Committee. “So, of course, there were concerns about such a significant change to the current structure. And so this bill, in speaking with N.J.A. (Nevada Justice Association), this was kind of the compromise position.”

A 2004 referendum put a series of protections in place to where the cap is now. Doctors at the time, who wrote into the committee against the bill, describe the period before that referendum as a time when many physicians couldn’t afford to practice in Nevada.

That’s a reality that doctors are arguing could come again should AB404 pass.

“Honestly, I would probably have to retire because that is not going to be something that I can sustain,” said Dr. Ati Hakimi, a family medicine physician who’s practiced in Las Vegas for nearly a decade. “We need to do better. We can’t say from one side of our mouths that we have terrible health care. And then for this legislation to even be considered—is really mind-boggling to me.”

Dr. Hakimi said her medical malpractice insurer informed her that her policy would triple under the new bill from $10,000 a year to $30,000.

Hakimi said it would adversely affect small practices and specialists the most since they would have a tougher time covering those extra costs.

It’s a sentiment shared by Diego A Trujillo, the CEO of Las Vegas Heals, which is a what he calls a “chamber for health care organizations” across the state.

“It’s also very hard for us to recruit physicians and bring them here,” said Trujillo. “Our concern is to make sure that Las Vegas is a very friendly and welcoming community to physicians so that we can attract physicians. The problem is this just increases the hostility. We’re reimbursing them less, and we’re putting them more at liability.”

Nevada ranked 47th in the nation for doctors per 100,000 population, 48th for access to primary care physicians, and 50th for surgeons, according to Your Nevada Doctors, a group that has been lobbying against AB404.

But attorneys who work in the medical malpractice field said this is long overdue so that they can better serve suffering patients.

Joseph Lee Benson II, a partner at Benson & Bingham in Las Vegas, estimated about 70% of the calls into his firm are for medical malpractice cases.

Because the current caps exist and these cases become so complex, Benson said most attorneys decline these cases because they essentially lose money on them.

“With this new bill, it’s going to enable at least some attorneys to want to do this type of law again. Because it’s been very restrictive, from a business standpoint, on whether we can take these cases,” said Benson. “So being able to raise that [cap] to $2.5 million, now that’s a step in the right direction. I wish there was no cap at all. I mean, you can kill someone, you can cut the wrong leg off, and we’re still stuck with $200,000 to 350,000 for noneconomic damages. It’s really unjust.”

Due to Nevada’s current affidavit requirement for a like-kind physician to review medical records, Benson said some of them charge “by the inch” of medical records to review.

“You could be in a case for $10,000 just to find out whether you have a case or not,” he said. “And that’s just not viable. Some of these cases require three experts. So you might be $30,000 into a case before you even know you have a case.”

Benson said most of the medical malpractice lawsuits he does handle are because he “wants justice” for the victim.

Joel Selik is another professional malpractice trial attorney who has practiced in both Nevada and California for the past 37 years. He agreed with Benson’s insight that most Nevada attorneys can’t make it worthwhile to take on medical malpractice cases.

He doesn’t agree that AB404 would push out physicians, adding that negligent doctors should be held accountable.

“Dealing with the statute of limitations, when there is malpractice, a patient and his family may be so wrapped up with that person’s care for the first year that they have no time, and they’re not thinking about hiring an attorney,” said Selik. “So many cases get excluded because people simply don’t know that they have a one-year deadline—or they’re so wrapped up in their medical care. One year is just an incredibly short amount of time.”

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Picture of Dr. Hakimi

Dr. Hakimi

Dr. Ati Hakimi MD graduated from Northwestern University residency in Family Medicine and did an extra year of training in Geriatric Medicine at Rush University Medical Center. She has practiced medicine for over 20 years.

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