Last year New Hampshire instituted a new law intended to expedite medical malpractice settlements. The “early offer” program allows people injured by healthcare providers to bypass the court system.

Injured patients can send a claim with medical documentation to the offending clinicians. Healthcare providers then submit the information to their insurance company. The insurer is then able to make a settlement offer to the injured patient within 90 days, and the patient has the option to take the offer or reject it and go to court. In New Hampshire, plaintiffs in medical malpractice cases must first go through a panel hearing before trial.

The early offer program is aimed at resolving smaller claims, primarily those under $250,000, in which potential plaintiffs may have trouble getting an attorney. There is a catch, however. The bill specifies that if an injured patient refuses the offer and does proceed to court, he or she may be responsible for a part of the healthcare provider’s attorney fees if the lawsuit results in an award that is less than 125% of the settlement offer.

A new bill, House Bill 582, proposes eliminating the penalty for those who choose to proceed to trial and allowing injured parties a longer period of time to decide if they would like to accept the settlement offer.

HB582 would also add lost earnings capacity to the amount a claimant could be compensated for; however, non-economic damages, such as pain and suffering or punitive damages, will still be out.

If passed, HB582, will extend the time period patients have after waiving the right to trial to change their mind from five days to 60 days. It also specifies that a patient can’t be pressured before a procedure to sign an early offer agreement.

Both supporters and opponents of the bill point to the fact that only one person has gotten an early offer settlement since the bill went into effect. Supporters say that this is a sign that the law needs to be changed. Opponents argue that the law is still very new and more time is needed to assess it.