Tort reform

Sunday, April 25, 2004

Missouri doctors who believe legislative action to limit damages in malpractice lawsuits will make malpractice premiums affordable got some good news and bad news last week.

The legislature sent a tort-reform bill to Gov. Bob Holden that lowers those limits. But the governor made it clear he intends to veto the measure.

(A tort is a wrongful act for which a civil lawsuit can be brought.)

Legislative action on the bill came just in time to require Holden to make a veto decision prior to the legislature's May 14 adjournment. Lawmakers in favor of the tort-reform bill hope to be able to override any veto, although support for the measure in both the House and Senate indicates a veto override will be hard to get.

At stake, say doctors, are medical practices that cannot afford malpractice insurance rates that have skyrocketed in recent years thanks to civil lawsuits -- even though a large number of those lawsuits were ultimately dismissed, dropped or withdrawn. Doctors and their insurance companies say the cost of defending against frivolous lawsuits has contributed to the increases in premiums.

While the trend has been more lawsuits and bigger payouts in medical malpractice cases, a report last week from the Missouri Insurance Department showed fewer malpractice claims were filed and paid last year than in any other year since 1986, when the legislature first imposed a cap on malpractice awards for non-economic damages in injury cases. That cap has been adjusted upward to reflect inflation. Last year's cap was $557,000 for non-economic damages such as pain and suffering.

There were 13.8 percent fewer claims against doctors last year and 16.4 percent fewer claims against all health-care providers. At the same time, malpractice insurers spent 44 percent more on legal expenses.

While the average payment per claim fell slightly to $207,068 last year, average payments in cases involving doctors rose 9.1 percent, mostly for economic damages such as lost wages and future medical costs.

The three biggest medical insurers in the state raised rates 19 percent to 82 percent, and all three posted profits.

Opponents of bill sent to the governor believe it is too broad and will provide legal protections to corporate wrongdoers. But something has to be done to protect health-care providers whose expertise and life-saving techniques are in jeopardy if they can't afford to stay in business.

The tort-reform bill is a step in the right direction.

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