Healthcare alliance SMASH ready for test

Steve Stanek Oct. 20, 2004, 6:31am

Dr. Morris Kugler

State Rep. Tom Holbrook

After one year, several rallies and nearly 30,000 thousand letters, the organizers of SMASH (Southern Illinois Medical Alliance for the Survival of Healthcare) are about to learn if their efforts have had a bearing on electors in Madison, St. Clair and other Southern Illinois counties.

With the Nov. 2 general election about a week away, this group of doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals is hoping to sway voters toward candidates, regardless of party, who support court reforms they say are needed to keep high-quality healthcare in the area.

Though state legislators propose and pass laws, probably the most important race to SMASH is the one for the Illinois Supreme Court 5th District seat, involving Washington County Circuit Judge Lloyd Karmeier and 5th District Appellate Judge Gordon Maag.

Karmeier, a Republican, is the choice of SMASH and others who believe lawsuits are a major factor in driving doctors out of the area and in closing hospital delivery rooms and other services. Maag, a Democrat, is the choice of trial lawyers who believe the tort liability system does not need significant change.

"As president of the Madison County Medical Society, I couldn't run money through the medical society for Karmeier," said Dr. Morris Kugler, one of the founders of SMASH. "SMASH was registered in the Fall of 2003 to raise money. We now do Karmeier work and a report card on elected officials in Madison County. When we're not doing that, we're getting doctors to write to patients to say, 'This is who we are for.' We're bipartisan."

Kugler said officials at the Illinois State Medical Society questioned the need for SMASH, because the state medical society has its own political action committee.

"I said, 'Why send our money to Chicago to have to beg to send it back?'" Kugler said. "Also, two-thirds of doctors don't belong to the medical society, and there are 30,000 other healthcare workers in this state who don't belong. Now, anybody who is interested in healthcare in this are has a political action committee."

Though they are a single-issue group -- focused on persuading legislators to reform the medical malpractice system -- and made up mainly of political novices, SMASH is already garnering more attention than some long-established political action groups, said Rep. Tom Holbrook (D-Belleville).

"SMASH is a little more politically active than the medical society, bar association or hospital associaton," Holbrook said. "They'll probably be active as long as medical malpractice is a problem in our area. Are they being effective? We'll have to wait until after the election to see."

One candidate SMASH supports and who is nearly sure to lose is Carol Kugler, Morris Kugler's wife. She is running a write-in campaign against Rep. Jay Hoffman (D-Collinsville). SMASH persuaded her to run after Hoffman, a trial lawyer, ended up with no Republican challenger. Kugler is a retired English teacher in the Kirkwood public school system.

Though some 200 nurses are knocking on doors for Kugler, her husband said, "She's a write-in. She won't win. But if Hoffman is unopposed, he'll divert his resources to Maag, so we wanted to give him trouble. We may lose, but we've had fun and done some damage."

Hoffman did not return an interview request.

His fellow Democrat representative, Holbrook, said every local legislator believe the medical situation "is a crisis. It's terrible down here."

Kugler said at least 163 area doctors have either quit or moved their practices to avoid sky-high medical malpractice premiums, which they blame mainly on frivolous lawsuits -- more than eight out of 10 result in no payment to the plaintiff -- and on unpredictable jury awards, which have been climbing.

Though local officials cannot directly shape legislation governing the courts, SMASH is also putting attention on local races.

"The group, in my opinion, is well-organized, with a single-issue agenda, to solve whatever is the problem with the medical situation," said Eugene Frizzo, a Republican Madison County Board member who is running for county board chairman.

"Based on what I know (about the medical liability crisis), their side is the side I support," Frizzo said. "There isn't much we can do at the county level but lend support."

Frizzo said he has been trying to do this by circulating petitions asking that the state legislature enact tort reforms.

"I've been feeding signed petitions to Sen. Frank Watson (R-Greenville), so he can say there is wide support," Frizzo said. "I've collected 16,000 signatures that say we encourage legislators to take whatever action is necessary to solve the problem."

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