SANTA FE — Emergency legislation to revise New Mexico’s medical malpractice law began racing through the Capitol on Tuesday — a bipartisan breakthrough in one of the most combative debates of the session.
The proposal is aimed at ensuring independent outpatient clinics can obtain the insurance they need to continue operating next year.
Republican and Democratic legislators this year expressed concern that the potential closure of independent clinics would worsen New Mexico’s doctor shortage.
“Patients deserve access to quality health care,” Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said Tuesday as she announced the agreement.
The proposal, Senate Bill 523, is jointly sponsored by the Democratic and Republican leaders in both legislative chambers.
Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, and Senate Minority Leader Greg Baca, R-Belen, helped produce the compromise bill by overseeing last-minute talks between a physicians’ group and trial lawyers representing patients. They said the governor helped close the deal.
The proposal would increase the independent clinics’ financial exposure to legal claims next year, but with a $1 million cap on damages rather than the $5 million limit that had been set to take effect. An inflation adjustment would be added to the cap in future years.
Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, said it was clear the clinics couldn’t obtain full legal insurance under the $5 million cap. But insurance companies, she said, have confirmed they can provide coverage under the proposed changes.
It’s intended to strike a balance that ensures doctors can continue to practice in independent clinics and patients can obtain justice in court for medical errors.
“We’ve come to a compromise here,” Baca said, “that is going to be workable and functional for a long time.”
Wirth said the negotiations produced a bill the lawyers and doctors say they can live with — much preferable to having lawmakers force an agreement on them.
“This is the kind of issue that really needed to be resolved by the parties,” he said.
The bill won a unanimous endorsement from the Senate Tax, Business and Transportation Committee late Tuesday and goes to the full Senate on Wednesday. After that, it would advance to the House.
Quick action is vital because the legislative session ends at noon Saturday.
The bipartisan deal comes after doctors in white coats and scrubs flooded the Capitol this year, contending a 2021 rewrite of the medical malpractice law had made it impossible for them to obtain legal insurance for 2024.
Proposals backed by the doctors were rejected by Democratic lawmakers in both legislative chambers earlier this session. Patients and their advocates testified against the measures, describing heartbreaking stories of injury and death caused by medical mistakes.
Reducing their potential compensation, they said, simply wouldn’t be fair.
But the compromise unveiled Tuesday was supported by the trial lawyers association and an array of groups representing doctors, hospitals and nurse practitioners.
The proposed changes centers on clinics that aren’t owned by hospitals. Surgical centers and urgent care clinics independently owned by physicians are a critical part of New Mexico’s health care network.
The state is already facing a shortage of medical providers. The number of physicians in New Mexico fell 30% between 2017 and 2021, according to a workforce committee.
Proposals to boost student loan repayment, health care provider tax credits and Medicaid reimbursement rates are advancing this session as lawmakers search for ways to expand the medical workforce.
The bill unveiled Tuesday calls for independent outpatient clinics to obtain private medical malpractice insurance covering up to $500,000 for a claim, starting in 2024. They would also pay a surcharge into the state’s patient compensation fund, which covers the medical costs of people injured by medical errors.
A patient who filed a medical malpractice claim against an independent clinic could recover up to $1 million. But the patient compensation fund, not the independent clinic, would cover the portion of the damages between $500,000 and $1 million.
The $1 million cap would be adjusted for inflation, starting in 2025.
The legislation also includes provisions excluding federal health care facilities from New Mexico’s medical malpractice law, meaning they won’t be subject to the caps on damages.
The bill also requires public tracking of claims and settlements involving outpatient clinics.