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Medicaid battle begins: Sink report puts $69 million pricetag on giving docs immunity

As the Legislature and now Gov.-elect Rick Scott consider giving doctors immunity from lawsuits in return for treating Medicaid patients, a new report warns that such an arrangement would cost taxpayers at least $69 million a year.

   Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, who lost to Scott in November, commissioned the actuarial report last month after lawmakers indicated they are considering extending sovereign immunity to Medicaid providers.

   The report concludes that if legislators extend the state cap on legal liability, known as sovereign immunity, to Medicaid providers who commit negligent acts, îîthe state basically takes the place of a doctor who commits a negligent act.'' When a patient sues, taxpayers pick up the tab of any medical malpractice claim up to $300,000. The cost of defending and investigating an estimated 551 claims a year would cost Florida $69 million a year, the report claims.

   Florida legislators passed a resolution in November indicating that during the 2011 regular session they would enact reforms that îîestablish a more fair and predictable civil justice system and reduce the disincentive for serving Medicaid participants.'' Translation: offer doctors immunity from lawsuits in return for accepting lower payments for treating Florida's growing Medicaid population.

   Sink's report may be a parting shot to the Republican-controlled legislature as she prepares to leave office on Jan. 4. But it is likely to be only the first of the salvos fired in the emerging battle over Medicaid reform during the upcoming legislative session. Sink's campaign was heavily backed by state trial lawyers while Scott won the support of the liability-averse Florida Chamber of Commerce and the Florida Medical Association.

   Sink questions the assumption that doctors will be more willing to accept patients if they are shielded from malpractice claims. îîNo research has been done that supports that rationalte,'' the report states, and notes that Florida would be the first state in the country to offer that protection.

   But Alan Levine, who headed up the transition team overseeing Medicaid policy, is urging Scott to shield doctors from liability by capping the damages against them, not by giving them sovereign immunity that would cost tax dollars.

   îîShe's got the right answer, but she's asking the wrong question,'' Levine said of Sink's report.

   The report also raises questions about a policy of having a îîtwo-tiered justice system for medical malpractice claims'' by capping recovery for Medicaid patients but not for others.

   îîI agree that our state Medicaid program needs to be reformed,'' Sink wrote in a letter to the House speaker and Senate president accompanying the report.

   îîHowever, I do not believe that extending sovereign immunity will convince many doctors to increase the number of Medicaid patients they treat, yet the change could be costly for Floridians,'' she said.

  Download Medicaid Sovereign Immunity Report[1]

 Download Sov Immunity Cover Letter 12-21-10[1]