10 years on, tort reform sees suits, payouts drop

Merced Sun-Star reports:

“Ten years after the Texas Legislature capped damages in the state’s medical malpractice lawsuits, the number of suits and the amounts paid out have fallen sharply.

The Austin American Statesman reported (http://bit.ly/15rYYMk ) Sunday that state Department of Insurance data shows medical malpractice claims, including lawsuits, resolved in a year fell by nearly two-thirds between 2003 and 2011 to 450. The average payout declined 22 percent to about $199,000.

Supporters of the “tort reform” law say doctors worry less about being sued and have seen their malpractice insurance premiums fall. Opponents counter that tort reform has barred many injured by doctors from going to court or relatives suing after losing a loved one due to medical malpractice.

The law took effect Sept. 1, 2003, and limited damages for pain and suffering in most malpractice cases to $250,000. Texas is one of 31 states to cap damages, though there is no limit on economic damages like reimbursement for medical bills or lost wages.

Advocates argue that excessive jury awards had increased physician insurance premiums so much that many doctors were leaving the state. Supporters also note that before the law, Texas’ medical malpractice insurance premiums were rising, especially for specialists in high-risk areas, such as brain surgery.

Physicians began seeing the state’s insurance premiums spike in 2000, said Jon Opelt, executive director of the Texas Alliance for Patient Access, a coalition of doctors, health care providers and physician liability insurers. In the four years prior to the law, the average Texas doctor covered by the state’s largest malpractice insurer faced premium increases of 147 percent, according to the Department of Insurance.

Opelt said that since 2003, average malpractice insurance premiums have fallen 46 percent.

Some of the law’s fiercest critics, meanwhile, have been trial lawyers, who say those injured or the families of those killed who don’t earn a lot of money — including children, retirees, disable people and nursing home patients — can’t get attorneys to take their cases because they stand little chance at big payouts.

Lawyers say medical malpractice suits can cost $50,000 to $100,000 to pursue.

But tort reform advocates maintain the law has led to influx of doctors, who are free from higher insurance premiums.

The Texas Medical Association reported that since 2003, the state has licensed more than 28,000 new physicians — about 3,135 per year. That’s over 770 more the average in the nine years prior to the law capping damages.

Those figures, however, don’t take into account Texas’ booming population and the fact that some doctors statewide conduct research or work in jobs that don’t involve seeing patients.

Texas had 176.1 doctors per 10,000 residents in 2010. The national average is 219.5, putting Texas 46th in the country in active patient care physicians, according to the latest State Physician Workforce Data Book, which is produced by the Association of American Medical Colleges.”