Illinois legislature not yet up to reform challenge

Steve Stanek Nov. 22, 2004, 9:00am

State Rep. Tom Holbrook

State Sen. Dave Luechtefeld

State officials on both sides of the aisle assert they want to stem a physician exodus that has reached critical mass in Illinois, particularly in the Metro-East.

The only problem is, neither side can agree to a solution. A glimmer of hope that the Illinois General Assembly would take action during fall veto session was dashed when legislators failed to take up the controversial matter and returned home for the holidays.

State Sen. Dave Luechtefled (R-Okawville) says the answer rests with Illinois' Democratic leadership.

"It's in the hands of Michael Madigan and Governor Blagojevich," Luechtefeld said. "But, Democratic leadership would like to do as little as possible."

Luechtefeld noted that unless reform legislation comes to a floor vote, it is otherwise meaningless. "It's time to quit talking. They're going to have to make some decisions. The governor has to lead the way not say he's going to lead."

State Rep. Tom Holbrook (D-Belleville) said he expects that when legislators convene next year there will be "intense work just like there was last session. We thought it was going to pass.

"Maybe since it will not be an election year something will get done. The issue cannot die, we have to get something done."

Holbrook said he was among the Metro-East legislators who signed a letter addressed to the governor, urging his support. He said the governor's leadership is critical for passage.

"He's the one to sign the final product," Holbrook said. "This cannot be a partisan issue."

Illinois is high on the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's Institute for Legal Reform's list of states in need of significant reform.

Lisa Rickard, president of the institute, said she hopes the Illinois General Assembly, "given the level of interest expressed by the public and play in the media" for the Karmeier-Maag race for state supreme court, focuses more on legal reform in 2005.

"I know they've been focused on medical malpractice, but there are other reforms they can review," Rickard said. "Clearly, there are venue problems in Illinois. Changes to venue rules would be good. Issues on caps on noneconomic damages makes sense as well, but the environment there is challenging in the legislature. It's not a partisan issue. There are centrist and moderate Democrats who embrace legal reform, and Republicans who are not pro-legal reform."

Caps on noneconomic reforms have been high on the wish list of medical malpractice reform advocates in Illinois, but Ed Murnane, president of the Illinois Civil Justice League, said he doubts such legislation would get far. According to the American Tort Reform Association, 18 states have limits on noneconomic damages.

"I'd say the situation in Illinois is still not particularly favorable for any significant tort reform, because the legislature remains under the control of very trial-lawyer friendly interests," Murnane said.

"I do think that next year, there has to be a new attempt to do something with medical malpractice reform," Murnane said. "Whether it is cosmetic or substantive remains to be seen, but I don't see trial lawyers budging."

Murnane also said tort reform supporters are likely to resurrect a class action reform bill that died in the senate rules committee. They also hope to advance a jury service reform bill that did get through the senate last year but was blocked in the house. That bill would provide compensation to jurors who serve on long trials. The aim is to discourage the number of persons excused from jury duty for hardship reasons.

"We want to expand the potential jury pool so it's not just students, retired people or unemployed people," Murnane said. "The argument against it was that it would increase the filing fee for a lawsuit by $10. The opponents argued that in some counties the filing fee is the highest in the country, and that may be true, but another $10 is not going to break the bank of firms filing lawsuits."

Venue reform also will get a push, Murnane said, as will measures to address lawsuits against local governments, including park districts, school districts and municipalities, which Murnane said "are easy targets. They're viewed as deep pockets because the can just raise taxes to pay for settlements."

The Madison County Record is owned by the Institute for Legal Reform, an affiliate of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

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