By Robert Nott, The Santa Fe New Mexico
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham on Tuesday announced a bipartisan comprise to curb rising medical malpractice payout caps — a deal that advocates on both sides of an emotional debate at the Capitol hope will prevent several independent outpatient clinics in New Mexico from shutting down.
Some standalone emergency rooms, urgent care centers and surgical clinics with maximum malpractice payouts now set at $750,000 would see that cap rise to $6 million by 2027 under a law that swept them into the same category as hospitals.
They have argued they will be unable to afford or even obtain malpractice insurance with a cap that high. Patient advocates, meanwhile, have questioned those claims and argued patients who face lifelong effects of medical procedures gone wrong deserve fair compensation.
Under Senate Bill 523, introduced Tuesday in the Senate Tax, Business and Transportation Committee, those small, independent medical practices would see a permanent payout cap of $1 million starting in 2024. The measure won praise from lawmakers and advocates.
“The million dollars [cap] is a good place,” said Sen. Gay Kernan, R-Hobbs.
Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, and Minority Leader Greg Baca, R-Belen, who co-sponsored the bill, said they plan to get it onto the Senate floor sometime Wednesday. If it passes the chamber, the legislation would have to clear at least one committee in the House of Representatives before hitting the House floor before noon Saturday, when the session ends.
The governor announced the new legislation during a morning news conference at the Capitol, where she was flanked by Wirth and Baca.
“We’ve set up a deal allowing doctors to pay affordable insurance premiums, keeping them in our state,” Baca said.
Tuesday’s announcement came three days after health care professionals clad in white coats conducted a flash mob-like event at the Capitol to pressure lawmakers to act on a stalled bill that would have capped medical malpractice payouts at $750,000 for independent clinics.
Lujan Grisham, Wirth and Baca said stakeholders had been working behind the scenes for days to find a solution.
Trial lawyers had been speaking with Wirth about the issue Monday night and even Tuesday afternoon, before the hearing, he told the Senate Tax, Business and Transportation Committee.
Wirth was first approached by patient attorneys last year, he said, adding they wanted help finding common ground with medical providers.
Baca said doctors and other health care professionals had contacted him last year with concerns about the higher malpractice caps.
The governor said Democratic and Republican leaders in the House backed the bill and had signed onto it as sponsors, suggesting it has a chance to pass a House floor vote.
If the bill becomes law, Wirth said, it will create “stability for current providers and it creates more certainty for new outpatient facilities looking to open up in New Mexico.”