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Tort reform praised; need for more cited

Some members of the Lincoln County medical community applaudedthis week’s passage of medical malpractice tort reform legislation,but they added that more work is needed in the area of generalcivil justice reform and in the election of judges to properlyinterpret laws.

“I think the legislature served the people of Mississippi, aswell as those in the medical profession, very well,” said internistDr. Ed Moak.

Moak said the consensus among other doctors he had spoken withwas that caps on non-economic, or punitive, damages was asignificant part of the legislation. The compromise legislation waspassed Monday and signed into law Tuesday.

With scheduled increases over a period of time, the caps arereasonable, Moak said. The legislation takes effect Jan. 1 with a$500,000 cap, which will later increase to $750,000 on Jan. 1, 2011and to $1 million on Jan. 1, 2017.

Phillip Grady, chief executive officer for King’s DaughtersMedical Center, said he was very encouraged.

“I feel pretty good about the legislation that has passed,” hesaid.

Grady added, however, that he was discouraged about rumblings ofnew lawsuit filings between now and before the new laws take effectin January. Trial lawyers have also indicated a possible challengeto the tort reform legislation’s constitutionality.

Grady said the medical community did not get everything itwanted, but he was pleased with the bill’s passage.

“It’s a great start and we’re moving in the right direction,”Grady said.

Grady and Moak said they were grateful and very pleased withDist. 92 Rep. Dr. Jim Barnett’s and Dist. 39 Sen. CindyHyde-Smith’s support of the tort reform legislation. Moak calledthem “strong advocates” for tort reform.

“They both did yeoman’s work for the people,” Moak said.

Moak said the passage was the “end of the beginning” inaddressing legal issues affecting the state. He mentioned judges,particularly at the state supreme court level, whose rulings andinterpretations have far-reaching consequences in how laws areapplied.

“That will ultimately have to be addressed at the ballot box inthe election of judges that will ensure a more level playing groundfor plaintiffs and defendants,” Moak said.

Insurance agent Alvin Smith, who handles medical malpracticepolicies for a number of local physicians, expressed similarsentiments while offering lukewarm approval of the tort reformlegislation.

“Anything is better than nothing,” Smith said. “This is probably50-60 percent of what’s needed.”

Smith said his comments were not criticism of the legislature.He pointed to needed changes in make up of the state’s supremecourt.

“The supreme court can correct the problems if we get the rightpeople on the court,” Smith said.

Smith said the state high court had changed from veryconservative to very liberal, and he offered particular criticismof incumbent Justice Chuck McRae. McRae is being challenged thisyear by attorneys Jess Dickinson and Larry Buffington for a seat onthe high court bench.

“The most important election this year is the supreme courtelection,” Smith said.

With passage of medical tort reform, the legislature has turnedits attention to general civil justice tort reform that wouldaffect businesses. Medical officials and Smith were hoping forsuccess in that area as well.

“We need tort reform for the business community as well as themedical community,” Smith said.

Pharmacist Robert Watts said he had not followed the tort reformdebate closely. However, he expressed support for caps ondamages.

“As a businessman, I know there needs to be some kind of cap,”Watts said.

Watts said people should be reimbursed for medical-relatedproblem, but he did not have an answer as far as at what level.

“There should be a happy medium both ways,” Watts said.

Pharmacist Clint Bane offered some stronger words for lawmakers.He said the legislature needed to “wake up” and put the interestsof patients and citizens ahead of those of lawyers.

“That’s the bottom line for me,” Bane said.

One goal of the medical tort reform was a response to doctorsleaving the state or stopping their practices because of the lackof medical malpractice coverage. Doctors either could not getcoverage or were facing much higher premiums for policyrenewals.

Joe Cokely, administrator at Haven Hall Nursing Home, said thelegislation was a good thing. He said it would keep health careavailable and affordable for citizens.

“I think we were in danger of losing health care for the mostneedy members of society: the frail and elderly,” Cokely said. “Thetort reform will address that.”

Smith said he did not think the legislation would make insurancecarriers not come back to the state any time soon. However, he sawbenefits of the new legislation.

“It will make carriers that are still here a lot more availableand reasonable in price,” Smith said. “Eventually, it will bringsome back.”

Smith said insurance companies are still being affected by Sept.11 and policies for areas such as medical malpractice are severelyaffected by market conditions.

While a number of lawsuits are still pending, Grady wasoptimistic that the legislation would in time produce the desiredresults.

“Hopefully, over the years as companies return to the state,we’ll see a stabilization and reduction of premiums,” Gradysaid.