Tennessee county asks state for tort reform

The Memphis-area board calls for the state to support "common sense" reform, including a $250,000 noneconomic damages cap.

By Mike Norbut — Posted Dec. 5, 2005

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After watching several state legislative sessions go by with little progress on tort reform, one Tennessee county is banging the drum a little more loudly for its physicians.

The Board of County Commissioners in Shelby County, which includes Memphis, passed a resolution last month urging the Tennessee General Assembly to "support common-sense medical liability reform," with a $250,000 cap on noneconomic damages.

While the county's resolution does not go so far as some municipalities that have passed their own tort reform ordinances, physicians see it as "a strong symbolic victory," said George Woodbury Jr., MD, a dermatologist in Memphis who is coordinating a grassroots lobbying effort for the Memphis Medical Society.

"This effort is meant to help our General Assembly understand this needs to be taken up without further delay," Dr. Woodbury said. "This provides a framework for the discussion."

The resolution, which passed by an 11-2 vote Nov. 7, also says tort reform legislation should include "full and fair compensation" for patients' economic losses, limitations for attorneys' contingency fees and a screening process for frivolous lawsuits.

Tennessee is one of 23 states that the AMA counts as showing signs of a medical liability crisis, in which escalating medical liability costs are forcing physicians to retire early, stop seeing high-risk patients or move to a different state. Some of the access-to-care problems caused by the medical liability crisis are evident around Memphis, where some specialists have dropped high-risk patients, doctors said.

Shelby County Commissioner and radiologist George S. Flinn Jr., MD, who sponsored the resolution, told the board that the practice environment in Tennessee was getting more challenging and that legislators need to address the matter.

"Physicians are having quite a problem in this area, especially with professional liability insurance as far as rates go," Dr. Flinn said. "Everybody is practicing defensive medicine. We're raising the costs of medical care."

Last year, the Carbondale, Ill., City Council adopted an ordinance that included caps on noneconomic damages and required lawsuits to be filed in the county where the alleged malpractice took place. Earlier this year, Illinois passed tort reform legislation that includes a $500,000 cap on noneconomic damages after years of effort by Illinois doctors.

Tennessee doctors, like the Illinois doctors before them, are having a frustrating experience watching inaction by legislators. Tort reform proposals have been "sitting there" for three years in the Tennessee Assembly and Senate committees, Dr. Woodbury said. The legislation has not made it out of committee largely due to the opposition by a handful of state senators from the Memphis area, he said.

"We're just looking for the tools to get this to the statewide level for discussion," Dr. Woodbury said.

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