Blunt praises quick action by House on lawsuit limits

Saturday, February 19, 2005

ST. LOUIS -- Dr. Robert Westerman had no plans to retire, but he did in December rather than pay his quickly rising medical malpractice insurance rates.

In 1999, the general surgeon paid about $25,000 for the insurance. By last year, that figure was up to about $75,000. "I actually lost money practicing medicine," the 62-year-old doctor said.

Westerman and about three dozen other doctors broke into applause on Friday, listening to Gov. Matt Blunt's position on litigation reform at a news conference at St. Anthony's Medical Center in St. Louis County.

Blunt thanked the House for quick approval of a lawsuit bill Thursday in a 106-52 vote, which sends the bill to the Senate.

Tort reform

The bill aims to restrict the filing and trial of all types of tort cases, including wrongful death, car accident and product liability cases.

The Republican governor contends high insurance and legal costs have been forcing Missouri doctors, particularly those in high-risk specialties, to leave the state.

But the total number of physicians with Missouri offices has continued to rise, from 13,305 in 2000 to 14,345 this year, according to figures from the Missouri State Board of Registration for the Healing Arts.

Among other things, the legislation would cap jury awards for non-economic damages, such as pain and suffering, to a permanent $250,000 in medical malpractice cases -- down from the current cap of $579,000, which rises annually with inflation.

Blunt spoke about insurance hardships faced by several doctors, including Westerman.

"If it was just these doctors, it would be worth fixing the tort system," Blunt said, "but of course it's not just about these doctors, it's also about patient access to care."

The bill also expands the definition of health care providers to cover nursing homes and pharmaceutical companies, capping the damages they would have to pay as a result.

The bill would restrict where injury lawsuits could be filed and how multiple defendants could be held responsible for jury awards.

Supporters of the lawsuit limits have frequently focused on the insurance costs of doctors. But a professional association of about 1,300 lawyers in Missouri is worried about the far-reaching effects of the bill.

"One concern over the proposed legislation is that it doesn't just apply to medical malpractice cases," said Sharon Geuea Jones with the Missouri Association of Trial Attorneys.

Jones said the proposed changes could prevent injured people from getting some needed compensation or prevent lawyers from pursuing some legitimate cases because they frequently spend large amounts of money to bring a case to trial, she said.

She doubted the bill would truly help doctors struggling with high medical malpractice insurance rates.

Westerman said there are no guarantees that the bill will bring down insurance rates, but said Blunt's efforts and the proposed bill are a step in the right direction.

"If fewer people are suing, or there's less payout by a company, the company should lower its rates," Westerman said.

Lawsuit bill is HB393

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