Some doctors encouraged by new malpractice panel

BY BRIAN BRUEGGEMANN
News-Democrat
http://www.belleville.com

Madison County Chief Judge Ann Callis has appointed three fellow judges to serve on a new committee that will meet with doctors and study medical malpractice issues.

“These judges are willing to go out into the community and talk to doctors, medical professionals and lawyers, to have a real dialogue on specific concerns about medical malpractice, and how it relates to the Madison County judicial system,� Callis said.

Callis said the three judges will report back to her and other judges and look into formulating new rules or procedures for medical malpractice cases.

In the past, some area doctors have complained that lawsuits have driven up their insurance costs, making it difficult for them to practice in the region.

In 2005, the state legislature responded by putting caps on noneconomic damages, such as pain and suffering, in medical malpractice lawsuits. The caps are $500,000 against doctors and $1 million against hospitals. The Democratic state legislature and Gov.

Rod Blagojevich touted the caps as ways to lower doctors’ insurance rates and keep them from leaving the state.

Dr. Robert Hamilton, a retired surgeon from Godfrey, said the caps seem to have helped, but they are expected to be challenged through a Cook County malpractice lawsuit that appears headed toward the state Supreme Court. Hamilton said that for now, doctors are not leaving the region in large numbers.

“It’s kind of like the bleeding has stopped, but we haven’t cured the cause,� he said.

Hamilton said the key will be having the Supreme Court uphold the caps.

“I don’t think we’ll see significant gains, in terms of really correcting the crisis, until we find out if we have a stable environment,� he said.

As for Callis’ committee, Hamilton said: “I support what she’s doing wholeheartedly. I think that’s the kind of thing that needs to be done, and I hope some good ideas come out of it.�

Callis named Circuit Judge David Hylla, Associate Judge Steve Stobbs and Associate Judge Tom Chapman to the committee.

Said Hylla, “I am looking forward to real communication between all parties, without the traditional constraints of a formal meeting, to foster meaningful measures that will better serve the people of Madison County.�

Stobbs said the committee’s goal is to “move forward and create a more open atmosphere for the medical community and for all citizens in Madison County.�

Dr. Pat Zimmermann, a family practitioner in Collinsville and an officer in a regional alliance of doctors, said he thinks the effort is worthwhile.

“I’m happy she’s doing it, but I’m skeptical there’s anything we can do with a few discussions,� he said.

Zimmermann said the Supreme Court’s review of the Cook County case and legislation on the state level are likely to have more impact.

In 2003, Madison County Circuit Clerk Matt Melucci’s office prepared a report on the number of medical malpractice cases filed in the county. The county had 269 cases filed from 1996 through 2002, with verdicts reached in 11 of them. Seven of the verdicts were in favor of the defendant while four were in favor of the person suing. The verdict amounts for the plaintiffs were $1.78 million, $470,000, $75,000 and $25,000.

Eighty-eight of the cases remained pending at the time, eight were transferred to other jurisdictions, and 162 had been dismissed. Cases are dismissed for various reasons, such as the plaintiff dropping a case or a settlement being reached. Terms of settlements often are not disclosed.

Plaintiff attorneys argued that the statistics showed that medical malpractice lawsuits are not a problem in Madison County. Critics argued that settlements had to be taken into consideration, and that just the threat of being sued in Madison County is a factor in doctors’ insurance costs.
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