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B.C. doctors are being coached by trial lawyers to avoid classifying motor-vehicle injuries as “minor” under new rules that, starting in April, will cap some claims.

“An early and optimistic prognosis will have a devastating impact on your patients’ legal rights if their recovery does not ultimately follow this course,” law firm Murphy Battista warned physicians in a Jan. 24 letter.

“An example of a way in which a patient’s rights can be protected is if the family physician explains they ‘don’t yet know’ whether an injury will cause that patient ‘serious impairment.’ ”

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That letter and others like it have prompted the organization representing physicians to urge its members to guard against what it describes as a campaign of misinformation around the changes to insurance settlements introduced by the Insurance Corporation of British Columbia.

“Doctors of BC has been made aware there are letters, flyers and other types of communications being sent to physicians that may contain misleading and inaccurate information about new ICBC regulations for treatment of patients," reads a Feb. 14 statement from the association to physicians.

Doctors of BC says the changes will not limit patient care or restrict physicians from making independent medical decisions. In fact, it says, patients will have access to more options for treatment.

“Under the new legislation, the overall allowance for medical care and recovery expenses will double to $300,000 to better support patients injured in a crash. ICBC will also pay more per treatment based on fair market rates and customers will no longer be out-of-pocket for most expenses.”

Last year, Attorney-General David Eby described ICBC as “a financial dumpster fire" and announced dramatic changes to rein in costs. The Crown corporation is on track to post losses of $1-billion for each of the past two years.

The provincial government passed legislation to curb skyrocketing payments for minor-injury claims by capping settlements for pain and suffering at $5,500 and limiting when accident victims can sue.

In the newsletter Bridge, which provides “legal perspectives of interest to the medical doctor,” physicians are advised to avoid using the grading system in the paperwork that ICBC will use to determine if an injury falls within the cap.

"Initially, the physician may have attached a Grade 2 [that would fall under the cap] to the patient. It may be difficult to re-classify. In light of this issue, it may be prudent for the physician to initially stroke through the Grades with the statement ‘Not possible to assign grade at this time.’”

The changes have put the government at odds with the Trial Lawyers Association of B.C. The group warns that injured individuals are paying the price for financial mismanagement at ICBC. The organization declined to respond to interview requests from The Globe and Mail.

Vancouver lawyer Joe Murphy, co-founder of the firm Murphy Battista, said it is perfectly reasonable for lawyers to point out to doctors the impact their assessments could have on their patients’ rights.

“Unfortunately, you’ll find out if you have an accident that you are not entitled to treatments unless the adjuster decides you are,” he said in an interview.

He said the Doctors of BC statement is itself rife with inaccuracies.

“It is ironic. I’ve read through this, and many of the statements are based on inaccurate or misleading information. I don’t think the person who wrote this read the legislation,” he said.

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Mr. Eby said in an interview on Thursday that he has heard from doctors about the unsolicited legal advice they are getting. “I’m glad the Doctors of BC are prepared to step up and warn physicians to call out misinformation when they see it.”

The Doctors of BC was consulted on the improvements to benefits for lost pay and medical rehabilitation for all people injured in accidents − the first major improvements in auto-accident benefits in more than 25 years.

Andrew Yu was one of the physicians who collaborated on the ICBC changes on behalf of Doctors of BC. He said members should not be influenced by lawyers when it comes to assessing their patients. “Some of these letters and brochures seem to offer direction on what words to use or not to use. We support the autonomy of family physicians to use their clinical discretion,” he said.

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