Hearing on malpractice site draws objections

It won't be easy or popular, for the N.C. Medical Board to post medical malpractice payouts on its Web page, judging from the opposition voiced to the idea at a public hearing Monday.

The board, charged with licensing and disciplining the 22,000 doctors who practice in North Carolina, has proposed posting all malpractice payments going back seven years. The effort is part of a new effort to broaden the kind of information patients can see about the doctors who treat them. About 25 other states have adopted similar rules.

But the measure has met opposition from doctors and hospitals, from the insurers who write their medical malpractice policies and from the lawyers who defend them against patient lawsuits.

Several of those speaking at the board's hearing said the rule – and in particular the seven-year time frame – would be unfair to doctors and patients. The speakers contended that many of the past settlements involved secret agreements between the parties that were sealed in court. By disclosing the doctor's settlement, they argued, an enterprising Web user could cross-search the doctor's name against online court documents and find the plaintiff's name – circumventing the court order.

“This rule goes well beyond what's necessary,” said James Cooney III of Charlotte, a lawyer with Womble Carlisle Sandridge & Rice. “Plainly, what you're seeking to do will change the agreement entered into. In my view, it's unlawful.”

But Thomas Mansfield, the board's legal director, said the move has been legally challenged in only one state that has retroactively posted medical malpractice payments. And that challenge failed.

The board will use the comments from its hearing Monday, along with e-mail messages and letters it has collected, to determine how it will publish the malpractice awards. The state legislature last year gave the board the go-ahead to publically post the payments, but left it up to the board to decide exactly how to do so. That decision will be made next month.

Monday's hearing drew 32 speakers, with 24 speaking against the board's plan to post all payments, no matter how large or small, going back seven years.

Of the eight who spoke in favor of the move, all said they applauded the effort to make more information available about the doctors who treat them.

Wanda Nicholson of Raleigh, whose husband, Ed, had spine surgery in 2003 that left him with a partially paralyzed foot, said she checked the medical board's existing file about the doctor prior to her husband's surgery. There were no red flags.

But after her husband suffered complications, which persist to this day, she learned that other patients had issues with the doctor, and that some of those patients may have filed lawsuits.

“It's too late to change the impact on our lives,” she said, “but this information might help others.”