Politics

The Kentucky Supreme Court has struck down a new law that requires medical malpractice claims to be screened by a panel of doctors before they can move on to court, saying that the measure “delays access to the courts.”

In an opinion written by Chief Justice John Minton, the court ruled that the measure violated the state constitution.

“Of all the rights guaranteed by state constitutions but absent from the federal Bill of Rights, the guarantee of a right of access to the courts to obtain a remedy for injury is possibly the most important,” Minton wrote.

All seven justices agreed to strike down the law, and two justices issued separate concurring opinions.

The law was passed by the Republican-led legislature last year as an attempt to make Kentucky more attractive to doctors and health care companies looking to relocate or expand in the state.

Gov. Matt Bevin’s administration defended the policy, arguing that it would help weed out frivolous malpractice claims. During oral arguments, Bevin’s general counsel Steve Pitt argued that the Constitutional protections apply to the judicial branch and not the legislature.

A lower court briefly blocked the law last fall but the state court of appeals allowed it to proceed while it was being considered by the Kentucky Supreme Court.

In the Supreme Court’s decision, Minton included a rebuttal of Bevin’s argument that the Constitutional protections didn’t apply to the legislature.

“All branches of government can oppress the people and such oppression must be guarded against,” Minton wrote.

The Kentucky Medical Association, an organization representing physicians, issued a statement expressing disappointment in the decision to strike down the law.

“Many individuals and groups worked closely with legislative leaders and legal experts to create a fair policy that would pass constitutional muster because of the need to implement tort reform in Kentucky,” Kentucky Medical Association communications director Emily Schott wrote.

“Despite this work, the Court has chosen to uphold the status quo that discourages physician recruitment, inhibits access to quality healthcare, and increases patient costs, while also ensuring that the litigation process for those who have justifiable claims will remain long and complicated.”

Republican Sen. Ralph Alvarado, a physician from Winchester and sponsor of the medical review panel law, has said that if the Supreme Court struck down the measure, he would propose a constitutional amendment to address the issue.

“The next step is changing the constitution,” Alvarado said in September, according to the Lexington Herald Leader. “Let the voters decide if they want to have this or not. If they don’t want to do it, then, you know, it doesn’t happen at that point.”

Constitutional amendments have to be approved by two-thirds of each legislative chamber and a majority of Kentucky voters during a general election.

Earlier this year, Alvarado sponsored a proposal that would amend the Kentucky Constitution to set caps on the amount of damages Kentuckians can sue companies or individuals for.

Ryland Barton is the Capitol bureau chief for Kentucky Public Radio.