Area physicians rally pushes for tort reform

Thursday, April 15, 2004

About 60 local doctors responded to a medical crisis in the parking lot behind the surgical clinic at Doctor's Park Wednesday afternoon. But these physicians left their first-aid kits at the office in favor of placards and buttons reading "Critical Condition: Patient Access to Care."

More than 75 people, mostly doctors and their spouses, used their lunch break to attend the rally for malpractice tort reform organized by the Cape Girardeau County Area Medical Society.

Society president Ed Masters told the gathering Missouri's current situation with professional liability insurance is threatening to drive physicians out of the medical profession, compromising patient access to care, decreasing quality of care and ultimately generating higher health-care costs.

Masters said that medical liability insurance premiums are as high as they have been since the 1980s, and some physicians are seeing rate increases of 200 percent or more. The primary cause of this, Masters said, is the amount of frivolous lawsuits in the state over the past few years. He said that in 2002, more than 70 percent of all closed physician claims in Missouri resulted from charges being dismissed, dropped or withdrawn, with no payment to the plaintiffs.

"Not only do these frivolous cases cost money to defend, but they cause damage to the reputations of innocent physicians," Masters said.

Society member and local delegate to the Missouri State Medical Association Tom Sparkman said that the answer lies in a bill currently before a Missouri House of Representatives conference committee. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Richard Byrd, R-Kirkwood, would put limitations on claims for damages against physicians. Some of these limitations would include lowering the cap on noneconomic damages from $565,000 to $350,000 without an inflation adjustment, and limiting civil damages recoverable from certain physicians to $400,000 for care or assistance in a hospital emergency room.

Sparkman said that in 2003, such a bill was passed by the legislature, but vetoed by Gov. Bob Holden.

The reason behind this rally was to raise public awareness and push for more pressure on the governor to sign this bill, or enough support from the legislature to override a veto.

One out of every three doctors in Missouri is considering either retiring early or leaving the state because of this liability crisis, Sparkman said. Others are forced to cut back on staff and equipment and many are not performing procedures that carry risk for fear of a suit being filed against their practice.

"We're here to voice the need for change," Sparkman said.

Most physicians in attendance wore their white coats as a display of solidarity in support for reform. One such doctor was Karen Yates.

Yates, an ear, nose and throat specialist, said that the cost of her liability insurance has skyrocketed by 400 percent over the past year. Combined with the rising cost of other insurance and a general increase in overhead, the result is that some of her patients can't afford surgery that they need.

"People who are gainfully employed are not able to get the same services that some people on welfare can get," Yates said. "People who are paying taxes are getting less health care, and to me, that just doesn't seem right."

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