Governor pledges fast track for lawsuit abuse laws

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The Associated Press

McALLEN, Texas: Gov. Rick Perry pledged Wednesday that neither the insurance lobby nor a lawyer-packed Legislature would prevent him from pushing a lid on medical malpractice jury awards and new controls over insurance rates into law next session.

“I will declare medical malpractice reform a legislative emergency,” Perry said, flanked by Democratic state lawmakers.

Doctors gathered at McAllen Medical Center for the announcement responded with a standing ovation.

Hours earlier in San Antonio, the Republican governor put homeowners insurance on a similar fast-track status, meaning lawmakers can begin hammering out proposals even before the regular session begins Jan. 14.

Many of the doctors took part in an April 8 walkout that brought national attention to the region’s skyrocketing medical malpractice insurance premiums.

“Everybody is excited,” said Dr. Noel Oliveira, a medical director at the Center. “We’ll be overly excited when we actually see the action taken.”

Some Rio Grande Valley doctors said their rates increased 400 percent in just one year and one in four reported being sued between 1996 and 2000. Medical malpractice claims against Valley doctors are about 60 percent more frequent than elsewhere in the state. Many of the lawsuits are thrown out as frivolous, but not before doctors spend time and money defending themselves.

Doctors and industry representatives blame trial lawyers for what Perry termed “playing the lawsuit lottery” in South Texas, which has a reputation for plaintiff-friendly juries and multimillion dollar damage awards.

“All across Texas, doctors are hanging up their stethoscopes and white coats as they abandon the medical profession because of soaring medical malpractice rates and the headache of frivolous lawsuits,” Perry said. “Doctors should be able to practice medicine without being unfairly sued for doing their jobs.”

Perry also proposed:

– designating courts or judges to weed out frivolous lawsuits and sanction the lawyers who file them,

– expanding the Texas Department of Insurance‘s ability to reduce unjustified insurance rate increases

– extending tort immunity to health care providers contracting with the state to treat low-income patients

– developing procedures to reduce medical errors and punish bad doctors.

The $250,000 cap would apply only to non-economic damages meant to compensate intangible losses such as for “pain and suffering” as opposed to medical expenses or lost wages. It is the same cap that was enacted in California, which now has the third lowest medical malpractice insurance rates in the nation.

Two lobbying groups fired back at the governor, saying the proposed damage caps would hurt patients and that it was insurance reform, not caps, that reduced malpractice premiums in California.

“It’s easier for the doctors to side with the insurance companies because that’s where the political clout is, but it’s morally wrong for doctors to front for insurance companies rather than protect their patients,” said Dan Heller of the California-based Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights. “The real lesson from California is that insurers need to be held accountable, rather that limiting the rights of patients.”

Said Dan Lambe of the consumer advocacy group Texas Watch,” This is all part of the broader insurance crisis that we have in the state of Texas – nobody is forcing insurance companies to justify their premiums.”

Consumer Watchdog
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