Collaboration in Civic Spheres

Washington state’s “sunshine committee” battles doctors, hospitals, insurers on medical malpractice data disclosure

by February 7th, 2013

The Washington state legislature’s “Sunshine Committee” is advocating for House Bill 1299 to open up data on settled medical malpractice claims but public hospitals, doctors and insurers are voicing strong opposition. A preview of the looming battle came earlier this week in testimony to the House Government Operations and Elections Committee; TVW video is below. The bone of contention is 1299’s provision to remove from current state law an exemption to the Open Public Records Act which bars disclosure of information on “the identity of a claimant, health care provider, health care provider, health care facility, insuring entity or self-insurer” in settled medical malpractice claims. Such information could be important to consumers and the media, and increase pressure for improved standards of care where needed – but opponents are warning of privacy issues and potential conflicts with federal law.

Currently, insurers and self-insurers must report to the state’s Office of the Insurance Commissioner just the type of health care provider, speciality and facility that were involved in a closed malpractice claim, but not their actual identities. The office issues a related annual report. 1299 addresses several other changes to state public records law to strengthen disclosure exemptions for child victims of sexual assault, and around locally or regionally maintained gang databases. The bill was heard along with two others , HB 1297 and 1298, which contained recommended changes on other disclosure sub-topics from the Sunshine Committee. HB 1299 is sponsored by Democrats Larry Springer, Sam Hunt, and Cindy Ryu.

There was vocal opposition to 1299 at the hearing from an assortment of lobbyists. Carl Nelson of the Washington State Medical Association and Physicians Insurance Mutual Company said the current disclosure requirements and exemptions on settled medical malpractice claims were part of an important tort reform bill passed in 2006 and the proposed sunshine provisions violated the spirit of that accord. Jackie Duerr of the University of Washington added that the proposed broadening of data availability might conflict with patient privacy protections in federal Health Insurance Patient Protection Act, or HIPPA, and therefore expose UW medical facilities to liability.

Lisa Thatcher, representing the Association of Washington Public Hospital Districts and the Washington State Hospital Association, said the changes would create an “unlevel playing field” because only publicly operated medical facilities would be affected. Drew Bouton of the state insurance commissioner’s office said lifting the exemptions might violate attorney-client privilege and lead some insurers to stop reporting any data related to settled medical malpractice claims.

Speaking in favor of 1299 and the two other bills were three members of the Sunshine Committee. One was former House Majority Leader Lynn Kessler, an 18-year Democratic legislator who served the 24th District. She said the committee deliberated all the new bills and provisions very carefully and that exemptions to the state’s public records law have grown from 11 around the time it was first enacted in the early 1970s, to about 500 at present. She was joined in supportive testimony by committee members Frank Garrad, former publisher of the Port Townsend Leader, and Roland Thompson of Allied Daily Newspapers of Washington. Rep. Springer, the bill’s lead sponsor, told other committee members and those at the hearing that he strongly supported it. The next hearing for the bill in the committee is scheduled for Feb. 14, 10 a.m. Track the measure’s progress at its bill history page.

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