Med mal issue takes center stage in Springfield

Ann Knef Feb. 1, 2005, 7:25am

Whether the Democratic-controlled state legislature takes heed or not, medical liability reform proponents are prepared to go the distance this legislative session.

“The plight of doctors leaving Illinois is real, not only downstate but in our suburban communities as well as Chicago,” said House Republican Leader Tom Cross (R-Oswego), chief sponsor of a recently introduced reform bill. “When doctors leave, our families struggle to find the care they need close to home.”

A bipartisan group of lawmakers and the Illinois State Medical Society recently unveiled legislation that would cap non-economic damages at $250,000, reduce frivolous lawsuits and protect physicians' assets from damage awards.

Even though House Bill 705 has the muscle of three Democratic Metro East representatives, its companion bill in the senate (SB150) has not attracted the same kind of support, yet.

Chief co-sponsors of HB 705 include Reps. Dan Beiser (D-Alton), Thomas Holbrook (D-Belleville) and Dan Reitz (D-Steeleville)--whose stance is not in lock-step with Sens. William Haine (D-Alton) and James Clayborne (D-East St. Louis).

Haine, who sponsored medical liability reform measures last year, says he favors caps, but "with exceptions."

"Caps have always been on the table," Haine said. "I put them there."

Haine said a $250,000 cap is unfair to certain segments of the population, such as homemakers, elderly or young children, who may have no "stream of compensable income."

The "rest of the bill" is fine, Haine said. "It mirrors what I put out last year. I have not changed my position.

"My view is that caps with exceptions will go a long way toward passing the constitutionality test," he added.

Beiser, who was recently appointed representative of the 111th District after the unexpected retirement of Steve Davis in January, said the bill is a "good starting point.

"My sense is that there will be some form of caps adopted. The amount is yet to be determined."

Beiser said he agrees that Haine's concerns needs to be addressed, but he also is determined to fix the doctor exodus problem.

"I came into this job saying I would help solve the crisis. I will give it a good faith effort."

Cross said the reform bill is modeled after last year's "Code Blue" package, which failed to gain favor among House Democrats.

“I am very pleased that this spring we will have stronger bi-partisan support to pass these needed reforms into law," Cross said.

State Rep. Ron Stephens (R-Greenville) said the provisions included in the reform bill are essential to restoring access to medical care in southern Illinois.

“Healthcare availability is a major crisis in southern Illinois and is spreading to other parts of the state. Specialists are leaving our state in droves to escape skyrocketing insurance premiums driven up by outrageous malpractice awards and a hostile legal climate,” said Stephens.

At a Capitol press conference, the Illinois State Medical Society seized the opportunity to portray a tragic outcome associated with diminished access to medical care.

Lisa Kasten, a nurse at Memorial Hospital in Belleville, told of her father's death which occurred a year ago on Feb. 3, 2004.

Fred Andricks suffered a head injury and was in need of urgent neurological care, but none was available in the Metro-East as those practitioners had departed. Andricks was stabilized at Memorial Hospital, but following weather-related transport delays, he was "near death" when he arrived at a St. Louis hospital.

"Time is tissue," Kasten said.

"We don't know if the outcome would have been different, but we were robbed the opportunity of knowing.

"I tell this story because if it brings hope for change, or if it helps just one person, then it will have made a difference," she said.

One of the few medical liability insurers in the state, ISMIE Mutual, also stood with the state medical society in its call for reform.

"Plaintiff lawyers will tell you that "the problem is, quote, 'insurance company profits'," said Harold L. Jensen, M.D., chairman of ISMIE Mutual.

"This is patently false. If liability insurers were as profitable as some would have us believe, they would be flocking to our state, not fleeing to our borders."

The medical litigation reform legislative proposal, "Keep Doctors in Illinois," also includes:

  • Enhancing the Regulation of Medical Liability Insurers Creates the Sorry Works! Pilot Program and increases the ability of the Division of Insurance to investigate and penalize insurance carriers for charging excessive rates. Carriers could face fines up to $1,000 per day.

  • Strengthening Disciplinary Procedures for Doctors
    Gives the Division of Professional Regulation greater ability to investigate physicians and doubles from five-to-10 years the statute of limitations to investigate allegations of a pattern of negligence. The new proposal also increases to $10,000 the fine the Division can impose in disciplinary cases.

  • Instituting Meaningful Litigation Reforms
    Increases the qualifications for expert witnesses in malpractice cases to help weed-out frivolous lawsuits. The plan also assures “good faith immunity” to physicians who provide emergency care free of charge, and to practicing and retired physicians who provide free home visits or free care in free clinics.

    Senate supporters of the reform package include co-sponsors Sens. David Luechtefeld (R-Okawville), Frank Watson (R-Greenville) John O. Jones (R-Mt. Vernon), Kirk Dillard (R-Hinsdale) and Pamela Althoff (R-Crystal Lake).

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