Wyoming moves toward tort referendum

Meanwhile, the Illinois Legislature wraps up without passing any bills aimed at offering physicians liability insurance relief.

By Tanya Albert amednews correspondent — Posted Aug. 16, 2004

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Obstetrician-gynecologist Jacques Beveridge, MD, is suspending his out-of-state job search thanks to action in a Wyoming special session in July.

When the liability insurance carrier he had been using announced in March that it would leave the state this year, Dr. Beveridge, who is from Lander, Wyo., was left looking for $100,000 to pay for tail coverage. That was on top of his regular premium to his new carrier due in August.

Finding the money wasn't going to be easy, given that Dr. Beveridge is a solo physician only five years into practice and still paying off hefty student loans.

But, he said, new laws that set money aside for doctors to borrow from the state to pay their tail coverage and that boost Medicaid reimbursement for deliveries will allow him to stay in his native Wyoming for now.

"I was very much in a short-term crunch to make decisions for me and my family," Dr. Beveridge said. "After the session, I am relieved. The Legislature is willing to move forward with relief."

Doctors providing obstetrical care to Medicaid patients will be paid for two years at 90% of the statewide average of billed charges. This is a notable increase, Dr. Beveridge said. More than half of his patients are on Medicaid.

Under the new loan program, physicians who choose to borrow money from the state must agree to stay in Wyoming for three years and to pay back the loan in five years.

In addition to those bills, the Legislature passed a measure that places a tort reform question on the November ballot. The referendum will ask voters to decide whether the Wyoming Constitution should be altered to allow the Legislature to consider capping noneconomic damages awarded in medical malpractice lawsuits.

Lawmakers also adopted bills that allow physicians to say they are sorry without having their sympathy used against them in a lawsuit, increase the number of medical students at the University of Wyoming, and authorize a study on topics related to medical liability insurance.

Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal has signed all the bills.

Doctors optimistic, lawyers not

The Wyoming Medical Society is happy with the way the special legislative session ended. WMS Executive Director Wendy Curran said the bills provide short-term relief and set the stage for mid-term and long-term relief.

"There is no single bullet to solve the crisis," Curran said. "It needs to be a lot of pieces."

With immediate help on the way in the form of the Medicaid increase and the loan program, the WMS will now turn its attention to educating the public about the proposed constitutional amendment.

If voters approve the change, the Legislature still would need to adopt a bill that creates a cap in Wyoming. Lawmakers would decide what limit to set and other details.

In the coming months, physicians are planning an advertising campaign and town hall meetings urging voters to adopt the constitutional change. Physicians believe a cap in the long run will help stabilize the insurance market.

"There is a lot of work to be done," said Dr. Beveridge, who has been active in trying to get reforms passed.

Trial lawyers will be launching their own campaign against the constitutional amendment. Fred Harrison, president-elect of the Wyoming Trial Lawyers Assn. and a former state legislator, said caps are not going to help physicians defeat the medical liability insurance problems they've faced for three decades.

He believes the special session was a failure for physicians and state citizens. "It didn't deal with insurance reform," Harrison said. "None of this is going to reduce costs for physicians."

While doctors in Wyoming experienced success, physicians in Illinois did not. Eighty bills attempting to deal with medical liability concerns were introduced in the Illinois Legislature this year, but lawmakers in July ended their extended session without adopting any of them.

The Illinois State Medical Society supported and urged lawmakers to pass a bill that physicians believe would have reduced the number of frivolous lawsuits and protected physicians' personal assets in cases in which awards far exceeded insurance levels.

The society also backed an amendment to legislation that would have capped noneconomic damages awarded in malpractice cases at $500,000. The bill had bipartisan support but was never called for a final vote.

"We saw a lot of debate on the issue, and despite broad bipartisan support for action, the insistence from the Democratic leaders for an agreed bill acceptable to the trial lawyers doomed any possibility for meaningful reform this session," ISMS President Kenneth J. Printen, MD, said in a statement.

Doctors were disappointed the measures didn't pass, but they will keep up their fight, Dr. Printen said.

"We will continue to persevere in our efforts to improve Illinois' litigation system and are hopeful that state lawmakers will address the crisis when they reconvene later this year," he said.

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