By Robert Nott, The Santa Fe New Mexican
A bill brokered this week by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and state Senate leaders from both parties — hailed as a compromise in an emotional debate over rising medical malpractice costs — passed the House of Representatives in a 63-0 vote Thursday.
Senate Bill 523, drafted in a deal with trial lawyers and health care professionals, will cap medical malpractice payouts for independent outpatient clinics at $1 million, which they say will allow them to obtain malpractice insurance and keep their doors open.
Under a law that passed in 2021, some clinics were swept into the same category as hospitals and were set to see the cap on their potential payouts in medical malpractice cases rise to $6 million by 2027 from $750,000 now. Many doctors and other medical professionals whose practices would be affected by the steep increase said they wouldn’t be able to obtain or couldn’t afford to obtain insurance with a cap that high.
They warned smaller operations — including ambulatory surgical facilities, standalone emergency rooms and urgent care clinics — would have to close or move out of state to survive. They urged the Legislature to act.
Advocates and attorneys of patients harmed by medical procedures gone wrong countered their clients deserved fair compensation for what could be lifelong physical and emotional effects or even death.
Both sides agreed on SB 523 this week — the session’s last week — as other legislation aimed at solving the problem for worried providers stalled in committees. No one wanted to see more clinic shutdowns in a state that already struggles with a shortage of health care providers, especially in rural areas.
Lujan Grisham, along with Democratic Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth of Santa Fe and Republican Senate Minority Leader Greg Baca of Belen, announced the deal Tuesday. It has since moved quickly through both chambers.
Rep. Ryan Lane, R-Atezc, one of the sponsors of SB 523, told fellow House members Thursday the problem threatened to exacerbate the lack of access to health care services for many New Mexico residents. If the measure didn’t pass, he said, clinics would be “exiting.”
For the most part, House members praised the near last-minute solution.
“I’m happy to see this so we can help all New Mexicans get access to doctors,” said Rep. Bill Rehm, R-Albuquerque, during the floor debate.
“New Mexicans deserve good health care,” said Rep. Doreen Gallegos, D-Las Cruces. “This is a part of that. New Mexicans also deserve to be made whole … when malpractice has occurred. But we need to have balance.”
Not everyone totally supported the bill. Rep. Elizabeth “Liz” Thomson, D-Albuquerque, said she was happy a deal had been brokered but said she felt the state had been held hostage by insurance providers unwilling to cooperate. She said she might not support the bill.
In the end, she did.
Rep. Jim Townsend, R-Artesia, argued trial lawyers, not insurance companies, were the ones putting pressure on the Legislature to get a deal done. But he, too, voted in favor of the bill.
The measure now goes to the desk of Lujan Grisham, who is expected to sign it.
Rep. Rod Montoya, R-Farmington, wondered aloud whether “some permanent damage hasn’t been done” from all the conflict surrounding the issue.
He added the resolution was beneficial, “at the very least, for others who are looking to go into practice in New Mexico and who might see that now there is a more friendly environment.”