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Garry Rayno's State House Dome: Bill on injury claims aims to please all

New Hampshire Union Leader

March 10. 2012 6:59PM

Medical Injuries: Medical injury claims and resulting litigation - ranging from the high cost of malpractice insurance to the dearth of pediatricians and other specialists to frivolous lawsuits - have concerned New Hampshire lawmakers for years.

About a decade ago, lawmakers established screening panels to negotiate medical malpractice claims, but they have not caught on, and few people have chosen to use that route to settle claims.

Now the Senate is about to begin work on a new proposal to reform the system through an early-offer program. A public hearing and a news conference will be held Thursday on Senate Bill 406, which seeks to bypass costly and time-consuming litigation and give patients, providers and attorneys a pathway to a quick resolution.

The bill's prime sponsor, Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley, R-Wolfeboro, said if the details can be worked out carefully, the program 'could benefit patients, providers and trial attorneys.'

Under the bill, a patient who believes he has suffered an injury from medical care may request to participate in the early-offer program instead of the system that's already in place. If the provider also agrees to participate, the patient will be guaranteed a payment, Bradley said, though it might not be as big.

A patient who submits a claim under the new system will have to undergo an exam by an independent health care provider as well as submit information about medical costs and lost wages. The participating provider would then respond with an offer of payment based on the severity of the injury, ranging from $1,700 to $117,500 along with lost wages.

The patient can accept the offer, negotiate further, request an administrative hearing before the insurance commissioner, or go to court.

However, if the patient decides to go to court, he would have to prove his case by the higher standard of clear and convincing evidence.

By participating in the early-offer program, a patient would not have to go through the stress of litigation or wait for years for a settlement or a court ruling, Bradley said.

For a provider, the program would avoid costly litigation and provide a more rational outcome, he said.

The attorney involved would receive 20 percent of the settlement with a certain outcome, Bradley said, whereas litigation could take years and might net the attorney nothing.

'This is a pretty innovative approach, but we'll have to see how well it works after the details are worked out,' Bradley said.

Among supporters of the plan at Thursday's news conference will be the New Hampshire Hospital Association, the Business and Industry Association and individual hospitals, he said.

'Obviously, we've reached out to the trial bar. I'm not sure this is 100 percent supported yet, but it's safe to say they are willing to work with us,' he said. 'Unlike going to war in the courts, this is a way to bring people together in a system that is both rational and coherent and could work for everybody.'

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Not over yet: The Executive Council has derailed a $3.65 million study of a passenger rail system from Concord to Boston, but that does not mean a stake has been driven through its heart.

The council voted, 3-2, last week to deny the contract for the study, but efforts are afoot to see whether the Federal Railroad Administration would contract directly with the URS Corp. of Salem and San Francisco for the study in the same way the federal Health and Human Services Agency contracted with Planned Parenthood of Northern New England to provide family planning services after the council turned it down last year.

Another option would be to have Nashua accept the grant, though that would be a little more difficult because the FRA could only send grants to state agencies or the state.

Nashua Mayor Donnalee Lozeau said after the council meeting she would explore that possibility.

And the third possibility would be to have the Metropolitan Boston Transit Authority (MBTA) accept the money for the grant and then contract for the study.

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Just Waiting: As the House struggles through its lengthy agenda this week - holding sessions Wednesday, Thursday and Friday - one of the major issues everyone expects to be a key chip - expanded gambling - has gone underground, but not for long.

A new amendment to address some of the concerns of the House Constitutional Review and Statutory Recodification Committee - mainly creating monopolies - would up the number of casinos from two to four and increase the cost of the license.

The bill now proposes two large casinos and two smaller ones, with one of the smaller ones expected to be in the North Country and the other in another economically disadvantaged area of the state.

House Bill 593 was originally scheduled for a vote early this session, but has been delayed several times for additional hearings and work sessions, which means leadership and supporters of the measure are still trying to find enough votes to pass it to the Senate.

The next attempt to drum up support comes Wednesday with a briefing on the most recent amendment to the bill.

The briefing will be hosted by both Republican and Democratic lawmakers in key positions on the House Finance, Ways and Means, and Public Works committees as well as House Majority Leader D.J. Bettencourt.

A brown-bag lunch will be provided by Cannery Casinos, Rockingham Venture Inc., Yankee Greyhound Racing Inc., and Greenmeadow Golf Club Inc., all businesses that would dearly love to host one of the casino sites.

Jim Rubens, chairman of the Granite State Coalition Against Expanded Gambling, said his group was not invited to make a presentation at the briefing.

'They are looking to impose the largest giveback New Hampshire would have seen in 20 years,' Rubens said. 'They don't want to see the other side.'

He said he finds it strange a tax this big is being pushed by Republicans, who were elected to control the size of government and to keep taxes under control.

He predicted the bill would not pass the House, but added, 'We won't know until it actually comes to the House floor, if it comes to the House floor.'

If the leadership decides to table the bill, he said, 'we will know what that means.'

Gov. John Lynch has vowed to veto the bill if it arrives at his desk.

The Senate put off action on its own expanded gambling bill - sponsored by longtime advocate Sen. Lou D'Allesandro, D-Manchester - to see what the House did.

The House has to take action on the bill by Crossover, March 29.

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Highway adjustments: The House takes up the state's 10-year highway plan this week. The biennial adjustment comes as federal highway funds are shrinking and the revenue from the state's gas tax, auto registrations and turnpike tolls is stagnant.

The biggest adjustment the House made to the plan Lynch sent to the Legislature was including in it the final phases of the Interstate 93 expansion from Salem to Manchester. The state is about $250 million short of the federal money and highway bond proceeds needed to finish the project.

The House Public Works Committee is essentially telling the Department of Transportation to find the money to finish the project. To help with that, the committee wants to divert $30 million a year in turnpike tolls to use as the state match for the project.

That will mean projects such as the rehabilitation of the Millyard bridges at Exit 4 off I-293 in Manchester would wait a few years, as would work south of the Little Bay Bridges on the Spaulding Turnpike in Newington.

And widening Route 106 from Concord to the New Hampshire Motor Speedway would be moved up two years if private funding was found to help with the work.

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Correction: Last week's column misidentified the Manchester alderman and House member who worked on the refugee issues in the city and before the Legislature. Pat Long headed a task force looking at the city level and spoke at a public hearing on House Bill 1405, which the House is expected to vote on this week.

The House Municipal and County Government Committee voted to kill the bill, which would have allowed communities to impose up to a one-year moratorium on refugee resettlement.

General News Manchester

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