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Saturday, September 20, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 75.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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When families have no redress
Bill would end limits on ability to bring malpractice claims
on
Erin Rice
as a football manager at Middleton High School. The school has since retired
No. 36.
Erin Rice as a football manager at Middleton High School. The school has since retired No. 36.

Erin Rice was 20 years old when she died on April 19, 1999. The Middleton High graduate had sought medical attention two weeks before, for shortness of breath, a bad cough and an upset stomach. Her condition was diagnosed, incorrectly, as bacterial pneumonia. She actually had viral cardiomyopathy - an enlarged heart caused by a virus.

"The doctors kept telling us they did everything to save Erin's life," says her father, Dr. Eric Rice. "They weren't telling us the truth."

Rice, a rocket scientist (he's president and CEO of Orbital Technologies in Madison), says his family learned 10 months afterward that an X-ray technician and a cardiologist had noticed early on that Erin's heart was enlarged.

"They should have told us that on our first emergency-room visit, but didn't," Rice says. "Her EKG was grossly abnormal. Her heart was very large. She should have had an echocardiogram immediately, and the emergency-room physician did not order one." Earlier detection, he believes, could have saved her life.

Another shock was yet to come: Rice and his wife were told they could not bring a malpractice action against the medical professionals involved. (They did sue over Erin's own pain and suffering; that action was settled in 2006 after a protracted legal fight.)

Wisconsin, virtually alone among the states, bars parents from suing over the loss of an adult child - or an adult child over the loss of a parent - due to medical malpractice. Both limitations stem from a series of appellate court rulings, not deliberately passed legislation.

Legislation to let families seek redress in these situations - dubbed the "Family Justice Bill" - passed the state Senate on Tuesday, 18-15. (The vote was nearly party-line, with one Republican voting for it and one Democrat against.) It now heads to the GOP-controlled state Assembly.

State Sen. Jeff Plale (D-South Milwaukee) has introduced similar bills in past sessions: "This has to be the third or fourth time." But he's more optimistic than ever, perceiving "a change in the attitude about it."

Plale, who was taken aback when a constituent first told him about this glitch in the law ("Oh, come on, that's ludicrous"), says the situation affects only a very small number of families. But he sees it as "a basic fairness issue" that should have bipartisan support: "We're not guaranteeing any settlement. We're not guaranteeing any results. They'll just get their day in court."

Christine Bremer Muggli, president of the Wisconsin Association of Justice (formerly the Wisconsin Academy of Trial Lawyers), also thinks the time has come: "This is the furthest we've gotten so far. People are finally realizing it's ridiculous."

Rice agrees. "The Republicans have got to get with it. They've got to understand that it's a human issue. It's not politics at all."

Crossing swords in Cross Plains

Things are heating up in the town of Cross Plains over a proposed development on land coveted for the national Ice Age Trail.

On Jan. 30, the town's plan commission will hold a public hearing (see townofcrossplains. info) on a requested map amendment to allow development by Janice Faga of two parcels eyed as the future site of an interpretative center for the 1,000-mile trail (Watchdog, 9/6/07).

Town residents, who overwhelmingly oppose the development, are also buzzing about a town board meeting on Jan. 7.

At this meeting, town Supv. Bob Bowman dismissed concerns that the project - which tentatively calls for 66 houses on two-acre lots - runs afoul of the town's one-house-per-35-acre rule.

"Right now, the town could act on the Faga proposal just about any way it wanted to irrespective of what our land-use plan is," Bowman said, according to a transcript posted online. He called the town's land-use plan - and the comprehensive plan now being drafted - "simply a guideline."

Bowman went further, saying the town is "not required to have a comprehensive plan in place, ever." And he opined that plan commission members who don't see things his way could be considered "derelict in their duties," adding "we would have an obligation to remove them."

Attorney Jim Mueller believes Bowman has become an advocate for the Faga project, and may try ramming it through the three-member town board with support from chair Harold Krantz.

"It appears that in order to test Bowman's legal theories," says Mueller, "he and Krantz are willing to give one developer at least six times as many residential lots as are allowed by the land-use plan."

Drew Hanson of the Ice Age Park and Trail Foundation is staying out of the town's land-use controversy. But, he says, "the property continues to be of great importance to the future of the Ice Age Trail and National Scientific Reserve."

Meanwhile, Dane County has begun talks with Faga about acquiring part of the parcels in question. However, says Laura Guyer, the county's conservation fund supervisor, "We don't intend for our discussion to impact the public hearing or the town's decision."

Faga, for her part, remains "open" to letting part of the 339 acres she controls be used for the Ice Age Trail. "We've kept out [of development plans] areas that they have an interest in," she says. "We've always recognized the Ice Age Trail connection in any plan we've put forward."

Duck! The Mallards strike back

Madison Ald. Michael Schumacher demonstrated either great political courage or stunning recklessness at a public hearing last week on a proposed new stadium for the Madison Mallards.

"The Mallards have a cash cow business, or should I say a cash duck," The Capital Times quoted the north-side alder as saying. "They don't pay their players, their lease for the stadium is about $20,000 a year, and their additional maintenance costs are minor. If they want the city to renovate the stadium, let's make sure they pay for it."

"Michael has no basis for that sort of comment," replies Vern Stenman, the Mallards general manager. He says the team, owned by Steve Schmidt of the Shoe Box, does make a profit, but "it's not about dollars and cents for Steve."

The Mallards, assures Stenman, do plan to pay for the proposed $5.6 million stadium. The team is seeking $800,000 in city funds already budgeted for new bleachers, and a $1.2 million city loan that will be repaid with interest. The remainder - $3.6 million - will be borrowed from profit lenders. And it's all to build a stadium that the city - not the Mallards - will own.

"The deal we're proposing is pretty good," says Stenman. "I think we have the support." But perhaps not from everyone.

Partners who don't care

Tony Testolin is giving up. Earlier this month, the Sun Prairie resident got a letter from Dean Health Plan. The news was not good.

"It is our decision to uphold the original determination to deny [this service]," the letter stated.

As Isthmus reported ("When Gold Is Not Good Enough," 8/16/07), Testolin cannot receive chemotherapy treatments at a clinic near his home and instead must drive 52 miles roundtrip to the west side of Madison. That's because he's covered by Dean's Gold plan, and the closer facility is available only under the insurer's more expensive Select plan.

Testolin was willing to pay the additional cost (about $50 a month) - until he learned that the more expensive plan does not include eye care. So he appealed Dean's decision - something he learned was possible only from a Dean spokesperson in the Isthmus item - backed, he says, by a physician at the closer facility.

But Dean turned thumbs down, calling the physician "a non-plan DeanCare Gold provider at that location."

"I think I'm going to drop it," says Testolin, proving he's more sensible than his insurer. "You're up against a bureaucracy instead of a health-care system."

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