The April 30 article “Mistake in surgery brings suit” tells the regrettable story of a surgery error and the patient’s subsequent lawsuit. Tort reform legislation now proposed in Missouri (SB 105 and HB 112) in fact would preserve the patient’s right to seek damages in medical malpractice cases. Under this legislation, patients could continue to seek tangible economic losses as well as noneconomic damages, i.e., “pain and suffering.” Actuaries can accurately predict tangible economic losses; these losses have and will continue to have no limits in our court system.
The problem is that nontangible (i.e., noneconomic) damage, by definition, cannot be measured or predicted. As a result, in order to cover these potentially limitless awards, an insurance company must markedly elevate premiums, which in turn means many physicians may elect to leave Missouri, limit services (such as no longer deliver babies or attempt high-risk surgeries), or retire early.
A cap on noneconomic damages is needed to prevent a major rise in malpractice insurance rates. Prior to 2005 when the previous tort reforms were enacted, Missouri faced a crisis, losing 225 physicians in one year alone and in 2005 spending over $80 million to defend against over 3,000 lawsuits. From 2005 when tort reform went into effect until the 2012 Missouri Supreme Court decision which struck it down, Missouri gained over 1,000 physicians.
Today, without tort reforms in place, Missouri faces another crisis that could reignite skyrocketing malpractice insurance rates and put access to medical care at risk. Ultimately, patients would suffer as fewer physicians are available, access to care becomes limited especially in underserved areas, and health care costs rise.
Tort reforms propose only to limit excessive noneconomic awards while preserving patients’ ability to use the legal system. A fair and reasonable medical liability system will protect patients’ rights and ensure their access to care.
Dr. David L. Pohl • Creve Coeur
President, St. Louis Metropolitan Medical Society