By Cheryl Catts
For the past year, patients at Salt Lake County and Bountiful Intermountain Health Care hospitals have been required to sign arbitration agreements, promising to not sue the hospital for malpractice. Friday, Feb. 6, a bill in the legislature caused IHC to reverse this policy.
“There has really been a groundswell of support for a change,” said Brad Parker, malpractice attorney and spokesman for Patients Against Mandatory Medical Arbitration. “That support, I believe, came into focus when the Senate majority announced a bill that would eliminate the mandatory requirement.”
Under the previous law, IHC could deny treatment to any non-emergency patients who did not agree to sign the arbitration agreement.
IHC has agreed to support a bill giving patients the right to choose voluntary arbitration, mediation or malpractice lawsuits.
Two proposed bills would give patients the choice, one by Sen. Leonard Blackham, R-Moroni, and one by Sen. Parley Hellewell, R-Orem.
The bill proposed by Blackham would require three arbitrators to be present at the time of the hearing, while Hellewell”s proposal would require only one arbitrator.
Parker said if arbitration were the patient”s preference, Hellewell”s bill would be cheaper and fairer for patients.
Patients would be required to pay half the cost of the arbitrator panel.
Proponents of the arbitration agreements, however, say arbitration is better because it is faster and less expensive for patients.
Mark Fotheringham, spokesman for the Utah Medical Association, said arbitration cases take only one year to complete, but malpractice lawsuits can take many years.
The additional time can increase lawyer costs and court fees.
“The legal meter never stops ticking,” Fotheringham said.
The Utah Medical Association supports Blackham”s bill because the bill does not allow one person to have as much power, and more expertise can be involved,” Fotheringham said.
“The cost of the arbitrators is pocket change when you compare it to the cost of bringing a case to trial,” he said.
Fotheringham said he compares the attack on the arbitration law to the story of David and Goliath.
He said private-practice doctors have been using arbitration as a way to settle disputes for years, but it did not become a concern until the large corporation of IHC began to mandate it.
“If we don”t do something to keep these litigation costs down, pretty soon no one is going to be able to deliver babies or do neurosurgery, or any other of these high-risk procedures,” Fotheringham said.
Janet Frank, spokeswoman for Utah Valley Regional Medical Center, said arbitration is a way to keep costs down and maintain access to the physicians.
She said high malpractice costs could drive doctors away from the area.