Panel limits public notice of malpractice payouts

Patients will be able to access a Web site that shows medical malpractice payouts their doctors have made, but the information will not be as comprehensive as planned.

Answering concerns from doctors, medical malpractice insurers and defense lawyers, the N.C. Medical Board voted Wednesday to make public only settlements of more than $25,000. In addition, the board scaled back the span of the data to publish. Rather than immediately post settlements from the previous seven years, the board set the start date of the malpractice profiles at October 2007 – when the legislature made the rule effective.

“The goal of the board is to protect the public,” said board chairwoman Dr. Janelle Rhyne, who practices in Wilmington.

She said the information, even scaled back, will provide patients more information about the doctors who treat them. The data is slated to go on the medical board's Web page in fall 2009.

But the rule still may be challenged. The N.C. Medical Society, which lobbies for doctors, led opposition to the board's proposal, and was not entirely satisfied with the compromises.

“They moved in a reasonable direction, and that's a positive thing,” said Stephen Keene, general counsel for the medical society. “But they did not fully address our concerns.”

Keene said the society's leadership will meet this weekend and decide whether to press forward with its opposition. It could contest the planned change to the state agency that oversees rules, pushing the issue back to the legislature and possibly postponing enactment.

The biggest sticking point remains the time frame for the malpractice data. Doctors and their lawyers argue that malpractice payments are often made with secrecy clauses that both sides agree to and are legally binding. By posting data from the past, they contend, those agreements could be breached. Some have threatened litigation over the matter, but no lawsuit has been filed.

Board attorneys have pointed to the experience of more than 20 states that have published malpractice payout information, and none said the issue caused problems.

“No one sued us, and the sky didn't fall,” wrote W.L. Harp, the executive director of Virginia's medical board, which began posting 10 years of data in 2001.

The N.C. Medical Board also conducted a poll of residents that showed a vast majority of respondents – 81 percent – support full disclosure of medical malpractice payments. In addition, 84 percent said they would like the information to show the past seven years of data.

The polling company, Public Policy Polling, concluded that “North Carolinians are extremely favorable to the idea of having easy access to the malpractice records of their medical practitioners. Almost all adults in the state want this Web site to be made available with seven years of archived information from the beginning, and most of them want all cases posted regardless of settlement cost or finding of substandard care.”