Holden discusses limiting injury lawsuits with attorneys, docs

Friday, August 29, 2003

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Gov. Bob Holden on Thursday encouraged attorneys and physicians to try to hammer out an agreement on legislation intended to curb the rising costs of medical malpractice insurance by restricting liability lawsuits.

Holden, who earlier this year vetoed a bill that would have imposed new limits not only on medical malpractice lawsuits but all personal injury lawsuits, has been considering whether to make the issue part of a special legislative session next month.

Holden, a Democrat, objected to the broad scope of the bill passed by the Republican-led legislature in May and said it did nothing to reform the insurance industry, which he said is needed to bring long-term relief to physicians.

Groups representing attorneys opposed the bill because of the caps on lawsuits, while medical groups supported it because they saw it as a way to make malpractice insurance more affordable for physicians.

Holden met briefly with both sides Thursday, then left as they continued negotiations in his office.

Consensus sought

"I called all the parties together and told them they need to find a consensus that everybody can support, then they need to go sell it to the legislature and we'll work from there," Holden said after emerging from the meeting. "I will put it in the call (for a special session) if we have an agreement and the support of the legislature."

Sara Schuett, executive director of the Missouri Association of Trial Attorneys said she was "hopeful" that an agreement could be reached while Tom Holloway, a lobbyist for the Missouri State Medical Association remained "cautiously optimistic" that both sides would work out their differences.

Negotiators said they wouldn't be immediately commenting on the outcome of the meeting.

Republicans sent a letter to the governor applauding the meeting but criticizing Holden for holding it just two weeks before the annual veto session is to begin. The GOP also complained that lawmakers weren't being included in Thursday's talks.

"If you were really serious about helping doctors and hospitals stay in business, you would have convened a meeting long before now and you would have included members of the Legislature, the only people who can pass the legislation," the Republican letter said.

Among Republican leaders signing the letter were Senate President Peter Kinder of Cape Girardeau and House Speaker Catherine Hanaway of Warson Woods.

"Governor, the medical malpractice crisis is real," the letter said. "We want to solve this problem before it gets any worse."

Some leading insurers have stopped offering new medical malpractice policies, and others have become insolvent over the past two years, leading to lower capacity in the Missouri insurance market. Some Missouri physicians have seen their malpractice insurance premiums triple and quadruple, even though they have not been named in a malpractice lawsuit.

In response, some doctors have formed their own self-insurance pools. And the state plans to sponsor a joint-underwriting association to offer medical malpractice insurance to doctors unable to get private insurance.

The legislation vetoed by Holden would have restored a $350,000 cap on non-economic damages, such as pain and suffering, in medical malpractice cases. The cap was originally imposed by a 1986 law, but because of an annual inflation adjustment has grown to $557,000.

The vetoed bill also would have reversed the impact of a state court decision that effectively negated the damages cap by allowing awards for multiple "occurrences" that contribute to a person's injury.

Among the bill's provisions opposed by attorneys were new restrictions on where personal injury lawsuits can be filed.

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