Senate med-mal fiasco confirms two facts

Ed Murnane Mar. 27, 2005, 10:43am

The hard-to-believe behavior of Illinois Senate Democrats last week reveals two facts that advocates of medical liability reform -- indeed any kind of civil justice reform -- need to come to grips with.

First, the trial lawyers in Illinois have sufficient control over the Democratic leadership in the Illinois General Assembly that they can manipulate the legislative process without shame and apparently without challenge from rank and file Democrats.

What other explanation is there for the sudden and shocking decision by the Democratic leadership to move all medical liability reform proposals from the Senate Judiciary Committee to the Senate Executive Committee without notice -- and only after two promised Judiciary Committee votes on medical liability were delayed and then scuttled entirely?

Senate Judiciary Committee members have spent hours during the past two years on medical liability reform proposals. Most of the members have a pretty good understanding of the issues. Two Democratic members of the Committee -- Senators Haine (Alton) and Clayborne (East St. Louis) -- represent areas that have been on the firing line in the medical liability reform debate and the two of them apparently decided they had to vote in favor of the bill before the Committee (SB 150) -- a bill that has bi-partisan support in the House of Representatives.

Votes in favor of the bill by Haine and Clayborne would have been enough to pass the bill out of the Judiciary Committee by a 6-5 vote -- and thus send it to the floor of the Senate where there are many other Democrats (and ALL Republicans) who would have voted for it.

But Senate President Emil Jones of Chicago decided last Thursday that he could not let that happen so he moved the bill -- and all medical liability reform bills -- to the Senate Executive Committee, a committee much more tightly controlled by Jones. In fact, he sits on the Committee.

So now the bill that includes a $250,000 "cap" on non-economic damages (related to physicians, it's $500,000 for hospitals) is before a Committee that is virtually certain to keep it exactly where it is: in the Committee. That's where the trial lawyers want it to stay. And in the Illinois Senate of 2005, the trial lawyers will get their way.

The second issue that reformers need to come to grips with is the fact that the medical liability issue is not viewed as important outside of southern Illinois.

The ICJL publishes a Daily News Update in which we reprint and distribute relevant news items from around Illinois, and nationally.
Last Friday's edition included reports on the Springfield happenings from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Alton Telegraph, Belleville News Democrat, Southern Illinoisan, Springfield State Journal-Register, Decatur Herald & Review and Madison County Record. There also was an Associated Press news item.

Not one newspaper north of Springfield included any coverage -- not even the AP story -- of the fact that the Illinois Senate adjourned in a stormy debate over the fairness of the treatment of the medical liability reform legislation.

There was no mention in the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, Daily Herald, Peoria Journal-Star, Rockford Register-Star, Joliet Herald News -- or any other newspaper that we could find. The reason? They do not consider this a big story. It is a Southern Illinois story.

And that is because of the failure of reform advocates --including the Illinois Civil Justice League -- to make sure people (and the news media) understand what this is all about.

On Feb. 23, Dr. Kenneth Printen, president of the Illinois State Medical Society, told the Illinois House Judiciary Committee:
"In Cook County, 40 of the 45 emergency rooms in community hospitals once had neurosurgical coverage. Today, only 20 ERs have on-site neurosurgical services available -- a 50 percent decline. Eleven of these community emergency rooms lost neurosurgical coverage in just the last two years.

"At Rush University Hospital in Chicago, the number of transfers coming in from hospitals without neurosurgical ER coverage increased 400 percent. Most of these transfers -- 80 percent -- originated at other Cook County hospitals. Transfer times ranged from 3.5 hours to 9 hours -- depriving patients of the immediate care so important to a successful outcome in neurosurgical cases. Many of you have heard the term "the golden hour" in reference to the extremely time sensitive need for treatment of neurosurgical and other trauma injuries. Even within the Chicago metro area, this golden hour was severely breached due to the lack of on-site neurosurgical resources."

Later in his remarks, Dr. Printen described the problem of neurosurgeon attrition due to retirements and he concluded:
“We are on the cusp of a catastrophe in the Chicago metropolitan area."

There has been a tremendous failure on the part of medical litigation reform advocates to get this information, this warning, to the people of the Chicago metropolitan area. The constituents of Emil Jones and John Cullerton and Speaker Michael Madigan and other legislators who have so often heeded the bidding of the trial lawyers must be organized to let those legislators know that they are concerned -- terrified -- that their sons and daughters who might be injured in a high school football practice or an unfortunate auto accident or a fall from a tree in a park might not have the kind of care that could save their life.

When the legislators who can make reform happen hear from their constituents, they will respond. Senators Haine and Clayborne and virtually every legislator -- Democrat and Republican -- in Southern Illinois has heard and has responded. This message needs to spread to Northern Illinois also.

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