Over the last few months the cost of medical lawsuit insurance has risen so incredibly high that many Missouri physicians have had to close their practice or move to another state. Those who can afford to stay have been forced to cut back on staff and new equipment, and to limit certain risky procedures such as surgery and delivering babies. The problem is equally bad in hospitals, where many doctors can no longer afford to perform high-risk emergency services and trauma care.
If this issue is not soon addressed, patient access to care will suffer as fewer physicians are able to provide services. Quality of care may suffer as physicians put off buying new equipment or hiring needed staff, and patients may be deprived of optimal care if unreasonable liability causes physicians to avoid new or risky but highly beneficial procedures.
Runaway litigation is at the root of this crisis. In 2002, more than 70 percent of all lawsuits filed against Missouri doctors were dismissed, dropped or withdrawn. These frivolous suits cost money to defend and cause irreparable damage to the reputations of innocent physicians. The insurance companies covering Missouri physicians saw their direct losses triple in 2002, as the average claim jumped 24 percent and the awards for such unquantifiable things as loss of enjoyment climbed a whopping 39 percent. Despite their sky-high premiums, Missouri insurers still paid out $1.17 in awards for every premium dollar they received. Clearly this legal system needs reform.
The Missouri General Assembly is currently considering two excellent bills (SB 1094 and HB 1304) that would reform Missouri's tort laws, limit runaway lawsuits, hold down the cost of liability insurance for doctors and still allow legitimately injured patients to have fair access to the courts and equitable compensation. These reforms must be adopted.
As health care providers, we believe patient care is paramount and the physician/patient relationship is sacred. Without prompt and meaningful tort reform, we fear both will be lost. The situation is critical and relief is an imperative. With the rising cost of malpractice insurance, many physicians are losing as much as $500 a baby when they deliver a patient on Medicaid. Those who can, have simply quit seeing these patients. Here in Southeast Missouri, those doctors will have to quit delivering babies completely. Many already have. The General Assembly must act now, before it's too late.
Anthony G. Poole, MD
Jennifer Nickell, MD
Jane Eaves, RNC
Sherry Welker, RNC
Missouri Delta Physician Services