AUGUSTA – Retired teacher Beverly Tripp of Poland said she was active, a traveler and involved with the historical society until 2001 when she fell and was treated at a Presque Isle hospital.

Initially, doctors did not diagnose her broken back and treated her only for pain, which led to her becoming a paraplegic, Tripp said. Today she’s unable to use the lower half of her body, bound to a wheelchair and in need of round-the-clock care.

Tripp was among those representing consumers at a State House hearing Friday speaking against L.D. 1378, a bill that would limit the amount patients could be awarded for pain and suffering to $250,000.

“A cap would do me no good,” Tripp said.

The bill pitted consumers against doctors, with both sides offering strong testimony.

The Maine Medical Association and other medical groups, as well as individual doctors, warned that rising malpractice rates are spiking costs and will lead to a doctor shortage.

Those opposing – the Maine People’s Alliance, Consumers for Affordable Health Care, the Maine Nurses Association, the Maine Women’s Lobby, and consumers – said there is no crisis in malpractice rates and no need for the law.

With his disabled wife of 32 years at his side, Brad McNeil of Brunswick spoke against the bill. An undiagnosed epidural abscess led to Colleen McNeil, then 48, becoming a quadriplegic, he said. Except for a few minutes each day, she needs a ventilator to help her breathe.

Without the settlement she received, “I could have never brought her home,” McNeil said, explaining she’d have to live in a nursing home. The settlement allowed his family to build a kind of hospital in their home, hire help, and buy a specially equipped van. Passing a law to limit settlements “would be utterly ridiculous.”

He removed his wife’s ventilator, allowing her to speak. Saying a few words at a time, Colleen McNeil recalled how she used to teach school, quilt and bowl.

“I was fantastic,” she said. Living in the nursing home was tough, she said, recalling how she hated seeing the elderly walk by her when she could not.

“I’m home now, and I’m much happier,” she said, adding she’ll never forget finally coming home. “When I pulled in my driveway I saw my house, my children, and a big banner.” If a cap existed, “I would never have been able to come home. I honestly would have died.”

But doctors stressed that action must be taken to harness malpractice costs or everyone will suffer.

Dr. Thomas Deluca of Rumford said many doctors decide to practice in Maine, despite lower-than-average Medicaid reimbursement rates, which make it tough to survive. But with both poor reimbursements and growing malpractice costs, he predicted there won’t be enough doctors in Maine if something doesn’t change. “Good luck finding people to take care of our elderly in Maine in 10 years,” Deluca said.

Rep. Lisa Marrache, D-Waterville, a practicing physician, said Maine’s growing malpractice costs and doctors’ fears of being sued has created “defensive medicine.”

That’s when doctors worry about not getting sued and order more tests than necessary, which drives up costs for everyone, Marrache said.

If a doctor is confident a patient has a sprain, but the patient “keeps calling,” a doctor will order an X-ray. If a patient bumps her head and has dizzy spells, doctors are quicker to order a CAT scan. “Those all add costs,” she said, but to avoid being sued, doctors “cover themselves.”

A law limiting malpractice awards would encourage doctors to order tests because of good medicine, not fear, Marrache said.

The bill will be taken up by the Judiciary Committee on May 20.

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