Tort reform has far-reaching effects

Published 5:00 am Friday, May 17, 2002

Physicians and attorneys may differ on tort reform’s impact, buta lack of the civil justice measures is casting a long shadow overthe perception of Mississippi’s medical and business climates.

Mississippi has received its share of negative publicity overits legal climate. Some say the tort reform debate is shaping up asa central campaign issue in next year’s elections.

Getting the most attention was a U.S. Chamber of Commercewarning to businesses to not come to Mississippi. Chandler Russ,Brookhaven-Lincoln County Chamber of Commerce executivevice-president, said the local chamber is not a member of thenational organization, but he did not disagree with themessage.

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“The message and the potential of that message were factual,”Russ said. “The method in which they chose to send it, I’m not sosure, was the best.”

Russ said it was fine to get people motivated, but other stateswith similar legal climates were not “singled out” as Mississippiwas. Dist. 92 Rep. Dr. Jim Barnett also expressed a disappointedunderstanding of the message.

“I’m sorry that they did that, but I can see why they did that,”Barnett said.

Forbes magazine featured a cover story on a Mississippi surgeonwho lost a $5 million lawsuit. The article also raises the issue ofrecruiting doctors to the state.

Local hospital officials and physicians have similarconcerns.

“Recruiting is going to be a nightmare,” said Phillip Grady,chief executive officer at King’s Daughters Medical Center.”Getting physicians to come to Mississippi is going to be extremelydifficult.”

Physicians said Mississippi is already one of the mostunderserved states in the nation and north Mississippi isparticularly underserved. OB/GYN Dr. Steve Mills said the situationis not affecting people’s daily lives yet, but he sees it on thehorizon.

“It’s something that’s going to start affecting people in thecommunity and in the state,” Mills said.

Internist Dr. Ray Montalvo said he has been telling people forover a year about the need to address the state’s legalclimate.

“Otherwise, the state will see the most severe shortage ofmedical care it has ever faced,” Montalvo said.

Although he doesn’t want to leave the state, Montalvo said hehas two offers where he could go and make more money with lessstress. Montalvo said some doctors are barely making ends meet andare working to pay bills.

“This has far-reaching effects,” Montalvo said. “This is notabout selfish doctors. This is about survival now.”

Even doctors entering the field are looking to leave thestate.

Dr. Bruce Black, whose wife Jill is from Brookhaven, is in thefirst year of a three-year residency at University Medical Centerand is doing some work at a hospital in Lexington.

Originally, he was one of a handful of people in his class of 32who planned to stay in the state. However, after working withdoctors and hearing from them, Black said those plans arechanging.

“With the climate the way it is, it doesn’t look that lucrativeto stay here,” Black said.

Black said he would consider staying if the legislatureacts.

“Most definitely, we want to stay if we can,” Black said.

If doctors leave or won’t come, patients face the potential forlonger waits in the local hospitals or having to go to othercommunities for care, Grady said.

Proponents believe tort reform is the answer or at least part ofit.

“If the governor and legislature don’t do something about it,Mississippi is going to lose a lot of access to health care,” saidGrady, who is urging citizens to contact state lawmakers about thesituation.

Grady would like to see a special session of the legislaturecalled.

That has not happened, but a special committee is beingappointed to study the situation and develop possible solutions.Gov. Ronnie Musgrove has said a special session would be called ifan agreement is reached.

Smith Insurance Agency officials said it is becomingincreasingly difficult to find malpractice insurance providers fordoctors and some other forms of insurance for other clients. Thosethat have or are able to get insurance are paying higherpremiums.

A proponent of tort reform, Alvin Smith scoffed at appointmentof the legislative committee to examine the issue.

“We don’t need to re-invent the wheel,” Smith said.

Other commentary on the state’s legal climate included a Harrispoll that ranked Mississippi last in terms of having a fair andreasonable tort liability system. In the poll of over 800 topcorporate legal counsels, 78 percent said that could affectdecisions such as where to locate and do business.

“It’s not going to impact just health care,” Grady said. “Thetort reform situation impacts all businesses.”

Dr. Randy Tillman, a gastroentorologist at Lawrence Countyhospital, agreed.

“It’s a disaster that people just don’t realize yet. It’s notjust doctors,” he said.

Economic development officials say a quality medical communityis one of several key factors in attracting new business andindustry. From an overall standpoint, insurance and hospitalofficials said the state’s legal climate makes companies lesswilling to put their assets at risk of lawsuit.

“There’s got to a reasonable legal climate,” Grady said.

The Brookhaven-Lincoln County Chamber of Commerce and IndustrialDevelopment Foundation have passed resolutions urging thelegislature to enact tort reform.

“It’s an issue that’s been on our agenda since the beginning ofthe year,” said Russ.

Russ said the chamber does not pass resolutions every day, butwas willing to take the “extraordinary step” to try and about bringabout tort reform to help membership. He said Brookhaven’s was thesecond chamber to join Mississippians for Economic Progress inpassing a resolution.

Business and industry need to know operating expenses andexposure risks, Russ said. Currently, both of those are unknownfactors because of rising insurance rates and no limits on punitivedamages in lawsuits.

“We have to be more competitive in other areas to offset that,”said Russ, adding that the remedy is tort reform and justices whoare willing to uphold the legislation.

Mills offered a similar view.

“When companies are hit with these multi-million dollar juryverdicts, it makes it very unattractive to come here to dobusiness,” Mills said.

Paul McLain, director of the Lawrence County CommunityDevelopment Association, said high insurance rates are having moreimpact in his area than a lack of tort reform.

“I’m not aware of any business where (the lack of tort reform)has been a criteria for them not to choose Lawrence County,” hesaid. “But I am aware that many individuals and businesses are veryaware of the high insurance premium rates. Many businesses haveseen those costs escalate, as well as local governmententities.”

In calling for tort reform, Russ said that no one is advocatingcitizens not getting their day in court. However, there needs to belimits.

“You can punish a business right out of business and that’s notwhat Mississippi needs to be known for,” Russ said.