Similar to many other states, Oklahoma has a statute prescribing that suits alleging medical malpractice must be verified by an affidavit from a qualified medical expert. Suits unaccompanied by a proper affidavit must be stricken out. This statute is part of what I call – and commend – as a procedural tort reform: it allows courts to get rid of unmeritorious suits against doctors and hospitals early in the process.
The statute, however, recently became a dead letter after being pronounced unconstitutional by Oklahoma’s Supreme Court for the second time in a row (Wall v. Marouk, — P.3d —-, 2013 WL 2407160 (Okla. 2013)). Evidently, this Court does not view merit affidavits as favorably as I do. Let’s see why.
The previous version of Oklahoma’s affidavit-of-merit requirement, limited to medical malpractice suits, was found unconstitutional as a “special law” and “monetary barrier to the access to courts” (Zeier v. Zimmer, Inc., 152 P. 3d 861 (Okla. 2006)). The current version extended to all suits asserting professional negligence, which makes it less “special.” This version was nonetheless challenged by a patient whose suit against a physician was not accompanied by a merit affidavit from a qualified expert.
The plaintiff alleged that the physician caused him permanent injury during surgery (loss of feeling in right fingers) by negligently cutting the median nerve in his right arm. The trial court ruled that the plaintiff must submit the required affidavit within twenty days or face dismissal.
The Oklahoma Supreme Court voided this requirement for being as unconstitutional as the previous one. The Court ruled that the requirement arbitrarily separates suits that allege professional negligence from other civil actions, in which plaintiffs do not bear the costly burden of obtaining expert review prior to proceeding. This disparate treatment, explained the Court, discriminates against victims of professional misconduct.
Connecticut’s Appellate Court recently ruled that hospitals and doctors can successfully sue their patients’ attorneys for filing a vexatious malpractice suit. The Court also ruled that the trial judge’s decision that the patient’s suit was vexatious will often create an estoppel against the attorney. The attorney will consequently be precluded from contesting that decision. The only issue will then be the amount of damages—double or treble—that the attorney and her firm will be obligated to pay the hospital or the doctor. See Charlotte Hungerford Hospital v. Creed — A.3d —-, 2013 WL 3378824 (Conn. App. 2013).
Whether this is going to be a trend in our medical malpractice law remains to be seen. In the meantime, I provide the details of that important decision.
Attorneys representing the family of a psychiatric patient, who committed suicide, filed a malpractice suit against a hospital and some of its doctors. They alleged that the defendants prematurely discharged the patient from the hospital’s emergency room while she was still experiencing a severe mental health crisis. Allegedly, this untreated crisis was the cause of the suicide that the patient committed four days later.
The suit was supported by an opinion letter from a registered nurse (!!). Under Connecticut law, as in many other states, the supporting opinion letter must come from “a similar health care provider.” The attorneys thus should have retained a psychiatrist, rather than a nurse, as an expert supporting the suit. Their failure to do so rendered the suit defective and the trial judge properly struck it out.
Steven Brill’s TIME MAGAZINE blockbuster article, Bitter Pill: Why Medical Bills are Killing Us, uncovers the CHARGEMASTER: a publicly undisclosed pricelist accountable for what we see in hospital bills. What we see there doesn’t look good: it includes acetaminophen sold for $1.50 a tablet (you can buy 100 of those for the same price at Amazon); $77 for a box of sterile gauze pads (Amazon’s prices vary between $6 and $11); $18 for a single diabetes test strip (sold for 54 cents by Amazon); $108 for antibacterial Bacitracin ointment (Amazon’s prices vary between $2.50 and $6.50); and so forth. Charges for stay, scans, surgeries, canes, and wheelchairs skyrocket as well.
The American Hospital Association (AHA) rejects Brill’s analysis. According to AHA, the chargemaster aggregates the hospital’s overall costs on delivering quality care to patients: “In order to take medications in a hospital, even over-the-counter medicines, they must be prescribed by a doctor (a little bit of cost for the doctor), that order gets transmitted to the pharmacy (a little more cost), the order gets filled by a pharmacist or pharmacy tech who retrieves just one Tylenol pill and individually packages that one pill (still more cost), the pill gets transported from the pharmacy to the nursing unit where the patient resides (a little more cost), then the pill is retrieved by a registered nurse who personally gives the pill to the patient and then must document the administration of that pill in the patient medication administration record (a little more cost). All of this process to give a patient a single dose of Tylenol in a hospital bed [must also be] in compliance with all pertaining regulations (a little more cost).”
This post will not try to resolve the Tylenol Debate. Nor will it say anything about the government as a plausible substitute for the eccentric chargemaster. Instead, I will raise a legal question: Can patients sue hospitals for excessive markups on medications and devices?
My answer to this question is a qualified YES.
Entrepreneurial and business aspects of running a hospital fall under states’ consumer protection laws (Brookins v. Mote, 292 P.3d 347 (Mont. 2012)). Those aspects certainly include billing (Jaramillo v. Morris, 750 P.2d 1301, 1304 (Wash. App. 1988); Ambach v. French, 216 P.3d 405 (Wash. 2009)).
The key question here is whether an excessive markup on medications and devices amounts to deceit or an unfair trade practice. If it does, the hospital would be in violation of the relevant state consumer protection law.