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MEDICAL negligence lawyers are to be invited to tender for a "super panel" serving a new national defence fund for NHS trusts which could put the squeeze on legal fees.
So far 343 NHS trusts have signed up to the voluntary Clinical Negligence Scheme that was set up by the Government earlier this year to spread the cost of claims and improve risk management.
The scheme, due to be up and running by next April, is essentially a financial pooling arrangement for trusts, which face a collective annual claims bill of £150 million.
Under proposals being drawn up by the Department of Health, hospitals receiving defence funds will be required to use solicitors on one of two panels.
A "super panel" will be used to work on claims that exceed £250,000, while a second and larger general panel will tackle smaller claims.
A Department of Health spokeswoman says the panels will be set up once the Special Health Authority overseeing the scheme comes into being in September.
Dr John Hickey, commercial director of the Medical Protection Society, which is managing the project, says a central data base will provide trusts with the first national statistics on negligence claims helping to improve risk management.
He adds: "Once the database has been built up, it will be possible to find out where the money's going and I'm sure that legal fees will be an area the Special Health Authority will examine."
Berrymans partner Cheryl Blundell, head of the firm's medical law department, says the panels will make it more difficult for new practitioners to break into the field.