Suit limits likely a no-go

By Daniel Connolly

Legislation to limit medical malpractice lawsuits will likely be introduced in the Tennessee legislature again this year, but just as previous efforts have failed, some lawmakers predict there will be strong opposition again.

Any change to laws related to medical mistakes could affect thousands of doctors, attorneys and patients.

Malpractice reform advocates want to make it harder to sue doctors and limit damages when patients win, saying that these measures will lower health care costs and keep doctors in risky fields, such as delivering babies.

They also say malpractice limits will prevent Tennessee doctors from fleeing to other states where it’s harder to file malpractice suits.

Trial attorneys and others against new restrictions say that the threat of lawsuits helps protect patients.

At the center of advocates’ legislative proposal last year was a $250,000 cap on jury awards for hard-to-measure factors like pain and suffering caused by doctors’ mistakes. Patients harmed by doctors could still receive money to cover lost wages and other economic damages.

The legislative session starts Tuesday, but Republicans haven’t worked out the details of this year’s legislative proposal, said Sen. Mark Norris, R-Collierville, Republican leader in the Senate.

New legislators voted into office in November may be less likely to support an awards cap, he said. But he said practices such as mandatory arbitration in malpractice suits may have a better chance.

“Our ultimate objective is to enhance access to affordable health care,” he said.

Advocates say high malpractice insurance premiums are putting some doctors out of the profession.

A Tennessee insurer, State Volunteer Mutual Insurance Co., charges obstetricians an annual premium of $62,609 for malpractice insurance, company president Steve Williams said this fall. For a less risky field, internal medicine, the premium is $9,154.

However, opponents of new restrictions argue that insurance premiums wouldn’t necessarily drop if the state put limits in place.

Norris said Tennessee doctors may go to states where the legal environment is easier on them. In 2002, the Mississippi Legislature passed new rules including a $500,000 cap on jury awards for non-economic damages such as pain and suffering.

Similar efforts in Tennessee have failed. In May, for instance, Republican lawmakers in the Tennessee Senate inserted new malpractice limits into an unrelated bill. The measure didn’t pass.

Sen. Jim Kyle of Memphis, Democratic leader in the Senate, said he hasn’t discussed the malpractice bill with the Republicans, but said they may have trouble mustering support.

“I think Sen. Norris is walking uphill, but I’m not going to say he can’t pass it,” he said.

Kyle said there are elements of the malpractice limits that he would support, and said Republicans will be more likely to pass the legislation if they’re willing to adopt changes.

Rep. Joey Hensley, a Republican, said he supports limits on medical lawsuits. But Hensley, a family physician from Hohenwald in Middle Tennessee, doubts new restrictions will pass the Democratic-controlled House.

“I don’t think until the makeup of the House changes there will be much differing results, even though I’ll continue to push for malpractice reform and I think our state needs it,” he said.
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