Med malpractice rates cut

By Laura Hipp

A 15.5 percent rate cut by the largest medical malpractice insurer in Mississippi has doctors praising tort reform and hoping their ranks grow.

The Medical Assurance Co. of Mississippi decided Sept. 5 to lower insurance costs for physicians in 2008.

Gov. Haley Barbour, whose 2003 campaign made tort reform a cornerstone, announced the reduction Wednesday, though one group said Barbour is taking credit for something the previous governor started.

“It’s made a difference,” Barbour said. “Doctors are staying in the state. Doctors are going back to delivering babies. Doctors are no longer afraid to do emergency surgery.”

Between 2004 and now, the malpractice insurance rate at MACM fell 45 percent total. Physicians also received rebates on premiums paid.

Company President and CEO Michael Houpt was out of the country Wednesday.

The state Department of Insurance does not regulate the company but reviewed the plans.

“Their (court) claims are going down in the severity and the frequency,” Deputy Insurance Commissioner Lee Harrell said.

Reforming the civil justice system was a major political issue five years ago pitting plaintiff attorneys against physicians.

Doctors said malpractice awards in court drove insurance premiums too high and made insurance difficult to obtain.

Without malpractice insurance, doctors avoided risky procedures such as childbirth and neurosurgery.

Trial lawyers argued patients had a right to compensation for medical injuries that dramatically altered lives.

The Mississippi Association for Justice, which represents plaintiff’s lawyers, said tort reform did not deliver on all its promises.

Health insurance for patients and medical costs rise annually, association President Joey Diaz said.

He said Barbour, a Republican, is taking credit for 2002 tort reform efforts by former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove, a Democrat.

Musgrove’s package capped noneconomic damages – often known as pain and suffering payouts – at $500,000 until 2011. The maximum award jumped to $750,000 in 2011 and $1 million in 2017.

Dr. Randy Easterling, chairman of the Mississippi State Medical Association, disagreed and said Barbour’s plan carried the impact.

In 2004, legislation pushed by Barbour set the maximum at $500,000 with no increase.

By closing the possibility of a higher damages, insurance companies responded with lower rates, he said.

In 2003, Mississippi had 5,765 licensed physicians, according to state records. That number fell by 460 doctors in 2004.

“If you lose 10 physicians, you’re losing 52 jobs,” Easterling said, referring to support staff. “We were losing Nissan plants right and left.”

Currently, there are 5,447 licensed physicians.

Dr. Kyle Ball, an obstetrician and gynecologist in Jackson, said not all of those doctors are practicing. Some physicians scaled back their services to avoid high insurance premiums.

He said patients who are wronged by doctors still can seek relief through the courts.
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