Unpredictability threatening’ practice, Vicksburg physician tells state lawmaker

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, August 14, 2002

[08/14/02]Increasing unpredictability in the state’s civil-justice system threatens the practice of medicine here, a Vicksburg doctor said Tuesday to a Warren County legislator on a panel chosen to study the matter and file a report this week.

Dr. Daniel Edney, 41, told state Rep. George Flaggs, D-Vicksburg, the problem is uncertainty.

“If we’re going to have medical care in Mississippi, we’ve got to get the medical liability-insurance market stabilized,” Edney said. “If I can’t have insurance, I’m not going to practice in Mississippi.” Edney is also speaker of the House of Delegates of the Mississippi State Medical Association. The physician group has asked the Legislature to cap so-called non-economic damages in malpractice cases as one step toward balance.

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Flaggs’ hearing, which lasted for about two hours, drew about 15 people, several of whom spoke vehemently for reform.

Flaggs and Rep. Chester Masterson, R-Vicksburg and a retired physician, are among the 13 House members meeting with 13 members of the Senate since June to prepare a final report.

Gov. Ronnie Musgrove has said he will call a special legislative session this month to address what many are calling a “crisis” in medical-malpractice insurance in the state. Bills introduced during this year’s annual session died without debate with members of the Mississippi Trial Lawyers Association, among others, saying that big insurance companies are raising premiums to cover investment losses, not because of excessive damage claims.

President Bush focused a national spotlight on the issue during his visit to Madison last week by calling for state and federal tort reform.

Rising volatility in the amounts of awards by trial-court juries for non-economic damages, which include punitive damages and those for pain and suffering, is behind the current rise in insurance premiums for doctors, Edney said.

“That’s where we must have caps, like every other state with appropriate tort reform,” Edney said, citing California’s “30 years of experience” as a success story.

Plaintiff’s attorneys’ percentages of jury awards, now as high as 60 percent in some cases, should also be capped, Edney said.

“Why should that profession be able to feed off the pain and suffering of others at this rate?” he asked.

Flaggs said again that, on principle, he thought non-economic damages should remain unlimited.

“I have a fundamental disagreement with changing the same civil justice system poor people have used to be compensated,” Flaggs said.

The representative further said he doubted doctors’ claims that their increasing liability-payout risk is behind rising insurance premiums.

“Nobody in Mississippi has been awarded punitive damages in a case against a doctor, and some cases have settled for much less than the verdict,” he said. “If anything needs to be capped, it ought to be insurance rates. I question whether (insurance rates) are really being regulated like they should be. When we get through with tort reform, we’re going to do insurance reform.”

Increasing costs for lawsuit verdicts, settlements, fees and insurance, regardless of to whom they are ultimately paid, are in the long run largely borne by taxpayers and consumers, several in the audience said.

Vicksburg Convalescent Home administrator Frank DeLamier cited an example.

“Our patients are 92 percent Medicaid,” DeLamier said. “The cost of liability insurance whenever it goes up is costing taxpayers 92 percent.”

Flaggs said he is confident the Legislature can find an acceptable compromise without limiting non-economic damages in lawsuits. Limiting where suits can be filed was one measure he said he supported.

Shady Lawn Nursing Home administrator Star MacDonald said the state has a legal rule, enforceable by judges, that holds attorneys accountable for filing fraudulent lawsuits.

“You made an excellent point, that is the law,” Flaggs said. “The judges are not using it. We can’t make them use it.”

Flaggs said testimony before the committee was to continue with five more witnesses in Jackson today.