Lawmakers grapple with tort reform

By Gus Bode

Doctors say they cannot keep paying insurance premiums

While the ongoing medical malpractice crisis is sending insurance rates up and forcing doctors out of the state, lawmakers and the Republican candidate in the 12th District Congressional race met with two area doctors Saturday to discuss ways to solve the problem.

State Sen. David Luechtefeld, R-Okawville, said the widespread problem could take 50 years to be corrected and only after supply and demand take precedence.

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“There are no easy answers to this, but a start would be tort reform,” Luechtefeld said.

He said the quickest way to see a change in the system is the upcoming Illinois Supreme Court race for a vacant seat in the 5th District, where Democrats currently hold a 5-2 majority.

Many Republican lawmakers have said that the addition of a Republican judge to the bench could make the court more sympathetic to passing medical tort reform laws. Republican Lloyd Karmeier, a Washington County judge and Democrat Gordon Maag, an appellate judge at the Mt. Vernon court, have been running a race that has garnered national attention because of the stakes in its outcome.

“You will not have another opportunity like this for another 20 years,” Luechtefeld said. “We cannot afford to put another trial lawyer [Maag] from Madison County in the Supreme Court.”

Luechtefeld said allowing Maag, who practiced in the “corrupt” Madison County court system, a seat on the Illinois Supreme Court would be the equivalent of a fox guarding a chicken coop.

Brendan Hostetler, spokesman for the Maag for Justice campaign, said Maag hasn’t practiced or been a judge in the Madison County court system for 12 years.

“Once again, the Republicans are using smear tactics and guilt by association,” Hostetler said. “They’re afraid to talk about the real issues.”

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Dr. Michael Delaney said Illinois should take lessons from nearby states like Missouri and Indiana, who both have fewer problems with malpractice cases.

Indiana has a sliding caps system, Delaney said, that currently allows awards up to $1 million in damages. He said Illinois should consider a similar system, but have a statewide pool of money that is funded by a miniscule tax paid by everyone. Delaney said the only stumbling block is insurance companies.

“Everyone who’s in the system needs to pitch in,” he said. “Illinois has an opportunity to look over what works and then make the most of this opportunity.”

Luechtefeld said looking at just one system that works in one state isn’t the answer, though.

“The point I have tried to make is that we can take parts from several state systems,” Luechtefeld said.

Dr. Joseph Rubelowsky, one of two heart surgeons in Southern Illinois, said he recently closed his private practice and joined SIUC’s health system because he couldn’t afford the insurance premiums.

“We have been demoralized,” Rubelowsky said. “We are just waiting to see the bottom fall out.”

He said the only reason the physicians are looking at the trial lawyers as the root of the problem is because they are personally coming after the physicians.

“They can make Mother Teresa look like a killer,” Rubelowsky said.

Rubelowsky is the most recent addition to the University’s health system, but Dr. Jack Bennett, a family care physician, also joined earlier this year.

“Rather than cure the problem and fight the attorneys, the state has said, ‘we will foot the bill,'” said state Representative Mike Bost, R-Murphysboro.

Delaney said the epidemic is picking up speed as more and more doctors leave the area due to “predatory” trial lawyers, but the upward trend of medical care doesn’t justify these cases.

“What’s the deal here? Medicine is better than ever, and we are getting fried like grits,” Delaney said.

Delaney, who has been a doctor in Southern Illinois for 24 years, said he has to hire a nurse just to do the paperwork for each patient he sees. He also said he pays more than $280,000 in insurance premiums.

“I don’t have that kind of money,” he said. “I’m bailing out.”

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