Counterpoint

by

Published: February 18,2002

Editor’s note: While the Mississippi Business Journal differs in opinion with the assertions made by Lance Stevens in this column, we do not dispute his right to make them — to argue his case, if you will — before our readers. We offer his thoughts in order to represent “the other side” in the tort reform battle being waged in Mississippi. As always, our readers are free to make up their own minds.

If I had a problem, I’d blame it on a lawyer.

Famine? Caused by lawyers. Disease? Caused by lawyers. Global warming? Caused by lawyers. Insurance premiums? Of course, lawyers.

It’s such an easy sell that some look beyond the facts from the get-go.

Mississippi doctors, repeating this mantra commanded of them by their insurance companies, have mis-diagnosed the problems and prescribed the wrong remedy. The Mississippi Trial Lawyers Association recently held a news conference to support our doctors by dispelling the myths and proposing real solutions to rising premiums.

Myth No. 1: Legal claims (jury verdicts) are forcing up medical costs.

Fact: According to state officials, Mississippi has the lowest health insurance premiums in the country, and we spend a smaller portion of our state budget than any state in the nation on employee health insurance.

Finally, we are actually the best.

Myth No. 2: Mississippi juries award huge sums in medical malpractice cases.

Fact: Mississippi malpractice awards are 17% below the national average (Source: National Practitioner’s Databank, 2000). And almost all substantial injury awards against doctors have been in urban or suburban counties like Rankin and Lauderdale, with none in Jefferson, Claiborne and Holmes. Finally, no other profession enjoys all the legal protections that doctors do: shorter statutes of limitation, a statute of repose, a prohibition against damage figures in complaints, peer review protections and numerous sovereign immunity protections (including damage caps) for doctors employed by the state or county hospitals. And their insurance Web site, www.macm.net, shows that doctors win 90% of the time with their insurance company netting $7 million in profit last year.

Myth No. 3: Insurance availability and rate increases are a product of big jury verdicts.

Fact: This proposition is laughable. While local papers print this garbage, national studies and national publications, like The Wall Street Journal, emphatically document that it is a poor stock market, bad insurance business decisions and the terrorist attacks which are causing premiums to rise. And every commentator, including the American Tort Reform Association president and its chief lobbyist, agrees that tort reform will not drive down rates.

Civil justice is just a red herring.

If you compared the newspapers from the early 1980s, when the market went sour, to today’s papers, you would see striking similarities: doctors threatening to abandon their practices, threatening to stop delivering babies, threatening to leave small counties.

Didn’t happen.

We have more physicians and more general practitioners per capita in Mississippi than ever before. The insurance companies fed us a line then, and they are feeding us one now.

A few solutions

Some legislators are supporting bills to re-create the assigned risk pool that was abandoned in 1997. The proposal would insure availability and keep rates at a reasonable rate. Some would allow video cameras in convalescent-nursing home rooms to monitor care. And a bill to require doctors to disclose certain background information to patients would allow consumers more autonomy in their medical choices, certainly enhancing the quality of care.

Lawyers and jurors are scapegoats for a “crisis” they did not create — that’s the mis-diagnosis — and the remedy that is being proposed has no factual basis — that’s the bad prescription.

That being said, we have to recognize that there are some people who know what they are doing. They are advocating tort reform not because they think it will reduce insurance rates, but because they know it will reduce their legal liability. And, as a result, it will make them less accountable for their mistakes.

For everyone else, it has been my experience that one sure-fire way to change their minds about tort reform is to see a loved one catastrophically injured by an avoidable medical error.

Attorney Lance Stevens is legislative chair and immediate past president of the Mississippi Trial Lawyers Association. His e-mail address is lstevens@stevensandward.com.


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