Dale: State’s legal climate leading to medical crisis

Published 6:00 am Wednesday, March 13, 2002

Mississippi is at the doorstep of a crisis in medical servicesunless something is done to improve the state’s legal climate,Insurance Commissioner George Dale said Wednesday.

Dale, speaking at the chamber of commerce’s quarterly membershipbreakfast, said the legal climate is one of four factors that aredriving insurance costs in the state. He focused on its impact onthe medical profession and the number of doctors quitting orleaving because of their inability to afford malpracticeinsurance.

“I predict we are right at the doorstep of dealing with a crisisin the medical profession,” Dale said during a brief question andanswer period.

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Commenting about perception and reality, Dale said the legalclimate is affecting what people pay for insurance in Mississippi.He said 71 companies had sent him their notices of intent to stopoffering at least some form of insurance in the state.

“We don’t need that,” Dale said.

Regarding malpractice insurance, Dale cited state medicalassociation statistics showing that through 1999, there had notbeen a $1 million insurance claim. From 1999-2001, there werethree, and this year there had been three totaling $15 million.

“Insurance companies are not going to offer insurance in ourstate with the possibility of that kind of judgment,” Dalesaid.

Dale called for a legal climate that is fair, reasonable andobjective in dealing with plaintiffs’ claims. He mentioned thestatue of a blindfolded Lady Justice in the Capitol rotunda,symbolizing that justice is supposed to be blind.

“But in Mississippi, Lady Justice is peeping. She’s not blindanymore,” Dale said.

Regarding tort reform efforts, Dale said he thought somemeasures would come out of the state Senate this legislativesession. He said several watered down measures came up there but,as predicted, nothing came up in the House of Representatives.

“I’m hoping between now and the next session, something willhappen,” Dale said.

Dale said 20 states had enacted some form of tort reform. Hementioned California’s having a stable medical malpractice climatebecause it enacted a $250,000 cap on non-economic damage awards in1979.

Other factors driving costs in the state, Dale said, includeunderwriting and the number of policies companies write, insurancecompanies’ own investment activities, and companies’ re-insurancefor terrorism threats. The commissioner said terrorism is a newcomponent after Sept. 11.

Most insurance companies in the state are required to havere-insurance, which covers a company’s claims beyond a certainfinancial point. Most re-insurance companies, like Lloyd’s ofLondon, are overseas.

“The American insurance industry is re-insuring itself withforeign entities,” Dale said.

Dale said the foreign companies do not want to cover Americancompanies because of the threats of terrorism. When they do, Dalesaid, the higher rates are reflected in American companies’ policypremiums for their customers.

In other questioning, Dale was asked about insurance policyabuse by policy holders.

The commissioner acknowledged the problem, but also said it wasa “two-way street.” He touted his efforts to get “clean claims”legislation that would require companies to pay claims, or give agood reason not to, within a certain number of days after receivingthe necessary information.

Dale was also asked about sovereign immunity for school systems.He said raising the limits on what public entities will be liablefor financially is forcing them to have insurance coverage for thatamount and schools will most likely see the biggest impact.

“Schools on limited budgets will probably feel the pinch morethan anybody,” Dale said.