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Political season fuels medical malpractice arguments

By Matt Hackworth

KANSAS CITY – Tort reform
Reporter: Hackworth, Matt

Doctors and insurers say the rising cost of malpractice insurance in Missouri is forcing physicians to leave the state. They say malpractice cases are on the rise in Missouri but trial attorneys say insurers are causing a scare to make record profits. As K-C-U-R's Matt Hackworth reports, arguments from both sides of the debate are forcing politicians to define how they'd change the landscape of medical malpractice:

In a visit to Lee's Summit earlier this month, President Bush made changing medical malpractice part of his stump speech.

"No one's ever been healed by a frivolous lawsuit in America. These frivolous lawsuits are running up the cost of your health care. They're making it harder for good docs to practice medicine. That's why we need medical liability reform now."

The President and other Republicans want to see more limits on damages awarded to plaintiffs in malpractice cases. To help make his case, the President used a local doctor as an example: the nightmarish story of Kansas City neurosurgeon Stephen Reintjes.

"About four years ago, they hit a low point, where per year, per neurosurgeon the premium was about $27,000. And then in the subsequent two years they jumped up to $60,000, and they jumped up to $90,000 and last November, we got a quote of $130,000 per neurosurgeon."

Reintjes says his practice has never been sued. But it's still had a hard time finding coverage. Despite the staggering leap in what they're forced to pay, doctors like Reintjes formed an alliance with insurance companies to push for change. Missouri is one of 20 states the American Medical Association says is burdened by the high price of medical malpractice insurance.
Missouri does have a limit on malpractice damages of $565,000 more than double the $250,000 limit found in Kansas, where malpractice rates there are cheaper. Insurance companies and doctors say lawsuits are out of control in Missouri. Physicians don't have many specifics about an increase in lawsuits But anecdotally, Reintjes says the phenomenon exists.

"I think it's hard to find a physician who hasn't been somewhat touched in some way by frivolous lawsuit."

"We don't see the increase in litigation number one, and a lot of their arguments just don't hold water."

Missouri director of insurance Scott Lakin's agency asked for a special study to see if cases were up in the state. The study revealed the number of malpractice cases actually declined during the last few years. Insurers challenged the study's validity. All the while, Lakin says insurance companies raised rates.

"The two top companies nationally made a profit of about $60 million last year. But none of that $60 million trickled down in the form of lower premiums."

Lakin says malpractice insurers are required to tell the state when they raise rates but Missouri's insurance department has no control over it. Missouri's largest malpractice insurer, ProAssurance, did not return calls for this story. Fewer companies like ProAssurance are selling malpractice policies nationwide. And with little federal oversight, insurers can essentially set their own price for what doctors pay.

"I'd like to help them. Who would want their insurance rates to triple in a year? I mean, I'd be screaming bloody murder, too. And I'd be looking for a bad guy."

Trial attorney Steve White specializes in medical malpractice cases. He agrees something needs to be done to reign in the cost of malpractice insurance for doctors but he doesn't think a lower limit on damages is the answer. He says a limit would ask him and his clients to bear the total burden for solving the problem. And the jury system, White says, is a natural defense against frivolous lawsuits.

"Juries are the ones that sort out the good from the bad. And to try to design some kind of cookie-cutter legislation that will ferret out cases that are perceived to be frivolous versus those that have merit, is impossible."

White says his peers will politically support whoever defends the seventh amendment right to a trial by jury. Trial attorneys like White usually throw their support to Democrats. John Kerry has said he opposes caps to damages awarded in lawsuits. Solving the problem will likely come in the form of legislation, at the expense of either malpractice victims and attorneys, or insurance companies and doctors.

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