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Negotiations over rising malpractice insurance rates reach a standstill

September 22, 2003
By: Kate Amburgey
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - Three weeks of negotiations sponsored by Gov. Bob Holden reached an impasse Friday when medical groups refused the latest proposal by the Missouri Association of Trial Attorneys to regulate medical malpractice insurance rates.

In August, Gov. Holden asked the two groups to negotiate a compromise that would provide doctors relief from skyrocketing insurance rates and would still provide a victim of malpractice access to the civil justice system, said Mary Still, the governor's spokeswoman.

The Missouri Hospital Association and the Missouri State Medical Association wrote letters to the governor saying that further talks are unlikely to produce meaningful legislation. They are asking for legislation that would limit noneconomic damage, or "pain and suffering" awards, to $400,000 and that would prohibit lawyers from shopping for trial venues where juries are known to give more generous awards.

The trial attorneys' proposal included a provision that would have imposed a five-year moratorium on any further insurance rate legislation.

"The trial attorney's are not willing to give Missouri physicians the malpractice insurance coverage that they need," said Fred DeFeo, president of the Missouri State Medical Association.

The trial attorneys' have asked the governor to appeal to the doctors to resume talks, says Sally Heller, President of the Missouri Association of Trial Attorneys.

During the legislative session, Rep. Richard Byrd, chair of the House judiciary committee, proposed a bill that would have capped noneconomic damages at $500,000. Gov. Bob Holden vetoed the bill saying it protected the special interests of large corporations by excluding them from the bills legislations, said Still.

Rep. Byrd, who intends to resubmit the bill with minor changes, says he believes Gov. Holden sponsored the negotiations for his own special interests.

"Gov. Holden conducted the negotiations for press coverage to say look I tried, when really he was acting in the desires of the trial attorneys," he said.

The Associated Press has reported that in the past six-months Gov. Holden received 20 percent, or $345,769, of his campaign donations from attorneys who specialize in personal-injury, medical-malpractice, workers'-compensation and class-action cases.

In August, the Missouri Association of Trial Attorneys sponsored a telephone survey of 500 Missouri voters likely to vote in the November 2004 election questioning them about changing medical malpractice laws.

"The research indicates that Missouri voters do not believe that limiting jury awards is the best way to reduce medical malpractice insurance costs," said Heller in a press release announcing the results of the survey.

The polls indicate that 58 percent of those polled believe that malpractice settlements should be left in the hands of judges, courts, and juries with 25 percent believing that awards should be established by Missouri law.

Rep. Byrd says the rising insurance rates have forced many Missouri doctors to leave the state in search of lower premiums, with some doctors simply crossing the Mississippi River into Kansas City, Kansas.

"As people leave, it is difficult to make sure we have enough people to cover a trauma center," said Tom Holloway, director of governmental relations for the Missouri Hospital Association. "This has a real and adverse effect on the ability of Missouri hospitals and physicians to give proper health care."