MSMA goes political by endorsing Haley Barbour

by Lynne W. Jeter

Published: July 21,2003

For the first time ever, the Mississippi State Medical Association (MSMA) has endorsed a candidate seeking the state’s highest post.

Mississippi doctors gave a thumbs up to Republican gubernatorial candidate Haley Barbour when MSMA’s political action committee (PAC) chairman J. Patrick Barrett, M.D., made the official announcement in a four-city press tour June 26.

“We simply need more malpractice reform, and Haley Barbour’s our man to do it,” said Barrett, an orthopedic surgeon in Jackson. “Tort reform is pretty much our litmus test because we’re in such a crisis. Anyone who’s willing to stand up and put effort into getting the problem solved has our interest. Right now, between Barbour and Musgrove, there’s no comparison. This is a do-or-die year. That’s why we decided as a committee to make an endorsement in the gubernatorial race.”

Lisa McMurray, Gov. Ronnie Musgrove’s campaign manager, said the governor’s primary concern is access to affordable, quality health care for the patients of Mississippi.

“While Haley Barbour’s been in Washington making millions from big tobacco companies and the drug industry, Gov. Musgrove’s been in Mississippi working to provide quality and affordable health care to the people of our state,” she said.

Barbour faces attorney Mitch Tyner in the Aug. 5 Republican Party primary. Musgrove faces four lesser known candidates in the Democratic primary.

MSMA members vary from very strong conservatives to very left wing liberals, but are in full support of Barbour, said Barrett.

“Our committee has a big assortment but there was only one dissenting vote when we decided to get into the governor’s race and endorse Haley Barbour,” he said. “We need a change. Mississippi is struggling in medicine, business and other fields. We’ve sustained significant damage and we’ll sustain additional damage in medicine and business if we don’t get this solved quickly.”

In 1999, more than 20 insurance companies wrote policies for Mississippi doctors. Now there is only one. Obstetricians/gynecologists are paying more than $180,000 per year for liability insurance, including one who is paying $16,000 every month.

“We had across the board a 45% raise in our premium level last year and right now we’re looking at possibly an additional rise this year that is comparable,” said Barrett. “We simply need more malpractice reform. Homeowners insurance companies have fled the state, too. Business insurance is skyrocketing. We must have a leader who wants Mississippi business to succeed.”

MSMA hasn’t gotten involved in past gubernatorial races because of the classic reasoning that the governor doesn’t have as much power as the Legislature in Mississippi, said Barrett.

“However, the governor can veto bills, call special sessions, and certainly has the bully pulpit,” he said. “He certainly influences the attitude at the Capitol. Mr. Musgrove did finally relent and call a special session to deal with tort reform but there were a lot of hoops that had to be jumped through, like work on a prison bill before they could even take up tort reform. Then legislators were forced to separate general tort reform from medicine, which we thought was a bad idea, and the session lasted 83 days, during which time the governor never showed up at the Capitol. It was obvious he wasn’t working very hard for tort reform even though he did call the session.”

Barbour has proposed the creation of an independent review panel to hear medical malpractice complaints before they go to court. That opinion could be admitted as evidence in a trial. If the review board determined a case was without merit, and the plaintiff or plaintiff’s attorney pursued the case, they would be responsible for covering all legal costs if they lose.

“That would stop a lot of frivolous suits,” said Barrett. “Right now, it doesn’t cost them a thing to sue.”

Barbour supports a firm $250,000 cap, which actuaries tell MSMA must be reached before premiums are slowed from their rise and have any chance of stabilizing, said Barrett.

“That cap must be firm because we have judges in the state who are a big part of the problem,” he said. “To give them the option to do away with the cap is just like not having a cap. From an actuarial standpoint it just doesn’t work. Plus, it’s a $500,000 cap that will go up to a million dollars in 10 years and that doesn’t work. We’ve got doctors leaving the state, looking to leave, retiring early and in some cases not performing some procedures such as childbirth.”

Several health care specialties in Mississippi are in crisis, said Barrett.

“The number of neurosurgeons in the state taking calls has dropped by more than 50%,” he said. “If you have a wreck in the Delta in the middle of the night and you need head surgery and it’s a night when no one is on call, you have to get to either Jackson or Memphis or you’re in trouble. In my specialty of orthopedic surgery, it’s almost impossible to get anyone interested in joining a practice in this state.”

When asked if he believed the endorsement was based strictly on his views of tort reform, Barbour said he didn’t think so. “I doubt it’s the only reason, but I suspect it’s the main reason,” he said.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at mbj@thewritingdesk.com.

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