Medical liability reform at risk in state supreme court case
One of the nation’s leading medical liability reform laws could be undercut in a case before a state supreme court. Also tied up in the balance is access to essential medical care for thousands of patients in a highly underserved region of the country.
Montaña v. Frezza, a case before the Supreme Court of the State of New Mexico, calls into question whether Texas’ medical liability reforms should apply when New Mexicans seek care from physicians practicing in their neighbor state.
A New Mexico Court of Appeals previously ruled that a New Mexico citizen who travelled voluntarily to Texas to receive elective medical care could file a suit against the physician in New Mexican court and under New Mexican law as a way around its neighbor state’s medical liability reforms.
Sick and injured eastern New Mexico patients rely on Texas physicians for medical care because the region lacks significant and necessary specialties. If Montaña v. Frezza is upheld, opportunities for eastern New Mexico patients to travel to western Texas for medical care will diminish.
New Mexico’s only Level 1 trauma center is in Albuquerque. There are no Level 2 trauma centers. Presently 36 percent of New Mexico’s critically injured trauma patients receive treatment in Texas. If the decision of the appeals court is allowed to stand, regional trauma centers in Texas may have trouble retaining the required specialists to provide the necessary services. This could result in the diversion of New Mexico trauma patients to distant Albuquerque for care.
Doctors and patients suffer the consequences
If Texas physicians are held to New Mexico law, which offers fewer protections for both physicians and patients than Texas law, patients will lose vital access to care. If Texas physicians feel unprotected or vulnerable to increased liability suits under New Mexico law, they may be less willing to accept patients from eastern New Mexico and unable to cover the additional cost this would require.
The Litigation Center of the AMA and State Medical Societies filed an amicus brief in support of reversing the appeals court’s decision. Montaña v. Frezza places “Texas doctors, nurses and hospitals seeing New Mexico patients at an even greater litigation risk,” the brief said. Increased litigation risk brings with it an increase in the frequency of lawsuit filings and an increase in the size of awards and settlements.
The brief highlights four costly effects of increased litigation risk:
- Insurance premiums will rise.
- Hospitals and physicians won’t be able to update medical equipment at the pace they do now.
- Resources that otherwise would have been allocated to medical care will be diverted to cover these other expenses.
- Medical staff may be less willing to provide care as they are less able to afford the increased costs associated with providing care.
Decision conflicts with New Mexico public policy
Montaña v. Frezza focuses on a single New Mexico patient’s remedy “without considering the long-standing New Mexico public policy favoring access to care” and the repercussions for future patients, the brief said.
The unavailability of medical care in eastern New Mexico is striking. The counties of De Baca, Guadeloupe, Harding, Quay, Roosevelt and Union do not have a single cardiologist, neurologist, plastic surgeon, orthopedic surgeon, radiologist or ear, nose and throat doctor. An open door to medical care in western Texas is a necessity for eastern New Mexicans.
For more information about the case, visit montanovfrezzabrief.info, a website set up to serve as a repository of source data and letters from grateful patients and concerned physicians.
Learn about other cases in which the AMA Litigation Center has supported medical liability reform on its professional liability Web page.