Our Med Mal Merry-go-Round

By The Madison County Record | Aug 24, 2008

Supreme Court justices are accountable to voters.

We should keep that in mind over the next two months, as Illinois' High Court reviews the latest round of medical malpractice lawsuit reforms enacted by state lawmakers.

The measures, which limit "pain and suffering" awards in cases against doctors and hospitals to $500,000 and $1 million per lawsuit, unquestionably have made the intended impact.

Since the reforms became law in 2005, malpractice insurance rates have crept downward, and doctors have been returning to sue-happy downstate communities like ours, places they once sought to avoid.

We know what happened in the Metro-East region when plaintiff's lawyer power and ambition ran roughshod over common sense.

A 2006 Illinois Civil Justice League study showed that in a single four-year period (2000-03), half of the doctors in Madison and St. Clair Counties had been sued personally or along with a business partner. Of the 422 lawsuits filed here during that span, only five went to trial resulting in plaintiff's verdicts.

What about the rest? Those suits just cost money, which helps explain why nearly one-fourth of the Metro-East's doctors had fled to less litigious counties. It's hard to care for patients when you're doing depositions or mired in court.

The lawyers had their own explanation when confronted with these ugly numbers. Bad doctors are to blame, they said.

Voters didn't buy it. So our lawyer-governor Rod Blagojevich traveled to Alton to sign the 2005 reform measures into law. A long-time beneficiary of the trial bar's campaign cash largesse, he held his nose in one hand and pen in the other.

Residents of a major metropolitan area were crossing state borders to find a surgeon, he was told. If our governor wanted to keep his job, he didn't have a choice.

Blagojevich also had a possible out.

Illinois' Democrat-leaning state Supreme Court had declared medical malpractice reforms unconstitutional twice before. And it could do it again. Trial lawyers seethed, but they had to be patient. Judicial activism could eventually come to the rescue, they hoped.

Three years later, their long wait continues as the high court does its review of appealed med-mal cases.

Meanwhile, access to doctors has improved in Southern Illinois. But the core elements that once drove this dilemma haven't gone away. Doctor-targeting trial lawyers are impatient, unrepentant and flush with cash.

A handful of justices have the power to keep them in check. This time, they should.

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