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Medical malpractice may get facelift

February 06, 2003
By: Valerie C. Green
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - The state Department of Insurance released a plan Thursday to reform the state's medical malpractice industry.

In the past decade, Missouri has decreased from eight companies offering coverage for doctors who are sued by their patients to three that still sell new policies.

"Missouri doctors have experienced delays in coverage caused by these companies leaving," said Scott Lakin, the state's insurance director. "There causes a logjam of cases for the remaining companies."

To increase competition among the few insurance companies that remain, the department recommended a state-supported insurance association to offer malpractice coverage for doctors in specialty areas deemed critical to public safety. This program would be funded by the property and casualty industry instead of the state, Larkin said.

Gov. Bob Holden accepted the report and said he would work toward implementing the suggested improvements.

"This is a plan to reduce costs for doctors while protecting patients' rights," Holden said. "But it is also a plan where not all parties will be happy."

The announcement came a day after a House Judiciary Committee hearing on the issue and a week after doctors from across the state lobbied legislators for changes in malpractice law.

Sen. Delbert Scott, R-St. Clair County, has introduced a bill that addresses some of the issues raised by the department's report.

"Insurance companies flee becuase they are exposed to too much litigation, and doctors flee because their costs are exploding," Scott said. "This creates a difficulty in access to health care for everyone."

Of the 1,600 malpractice cases filed in Missouri last year, 439 cases resulted in monetary awards and the other 70 percent were thrown out. Even when cases are dismissed, doctors have to pay attorneys' fees, the cost of which may get passed on to other patients. Scott's bill would force the patient who lost the suit to be responsible for these fees.

Lakin said a priority reform should be reversing a court decision that allows an injured patient to file several lawsuits and collect maximum awards on each. Instead, there should be restrictions on malpractice cases, Lakin said.

Scott's bill and a similar version in the House would place a one-lawsuit limit on each patient and a cap of $250,000 on jury awards. Both bills are scheduled for hearings next week.

Other recommendations made by the department of insurance included:

N The department will conduct a multi-company exam and make a comprehensive study of the industry.

N The governor should propose a Medicaid reimbursement increase for obstetricians.

N The state should prohibit insurers from charging providers that have a pending medical malpractice claim.

N The governor should establish a Missouri Commission of Patient Safety to explore ways to reduce medical errors that determine the cost of malpractice insurance.