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The Third Branch

Series looks at medical mediation

On Aug. 9, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel ran a series of articles about trends in Wisconsin's medical mediation system, noting a reduction in cases handled by the Supreme Court's Medical Mediation Panels since it was created by the Legislature in 1987.

Part 1, entitled, "Medical malpractice lawsuits plummet in Wisconsin," noted that the number of medical malpractice lawsuits filed in Wisconsin since 1999 dropped by more than 50 percent. During that same time, the state's Injured Patients and Families Compensation Fund has grown to more than $1.15 billion, "a total larger than all the money it has paid out during its entire 39-year history," according to the newspaper.

The article framed the debate, in part, this way: "Malpractice lawyers blame the decline on state laws that they say are skewed in favor of doctors and hospitals; medical groups contend that malpractice suits have declined because health care professionals have gotten better at their jobs."

Part 2, entitled "Medical mediation rarely provides closure for families," outlines the difficulties some survivors face in pursuing medical malpractice claims due to limitations on who is allowed to pursue a case. Finding a lawyer willing to represent a victim's family is difficult due to difficulties in winning a case, the newspaper reported.

The article indicates "there were 410 claims filed with the panels in 1987, the first full year of its operation. That has gradually declined, falling to 161 last year. The percentage of cases that went to hearing also has fallen, from nearly 55 percent in 2003 to 22.5 percent last year."

Medical Mediation Panels Director Randy Sproule told the newspaper that the vast majority of participants in hearings who respond to agency surveys say the session "served a constructive purpose."

"Reaching a settlement is not the only way to measure success of the mediation… it can be helpful for participants to meet and perhaps lay the groundwork for a future resolution," Sproule indicated.

The article closed with Sproule indicating that if lawmakers "intended that this particular format was to produce a significant number of settlements early in the proceeding, it's apparent that this format is not achieving that. "If that was their intent, I think they were misguided."

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