Resolving insurance hassles trumps tort reform on Oklahoma medical association agenda

by the Associated Press / January 19, 2005


The Oklahoma State Medical Association will not press for more lawsuit reform this year, Jack Beller, M.D., immediate past president of the medical group, said Tuesday. Beller said the association's board of trustees had decided its top priority will be legislation to shore up the Physicians Liability Insurance Co. by extending to 2008 a state exemption that PLICO meet certain requirements for building reserves. That exemption is now due to expire in 2006.

PLICO is owned by doctors and writes the majority of liability insurance for physicians in the state. It was formed several years ago after private liability insurance companies pulled out of the state. Beller said the medical association also will sponsor legislation to help relieve "insurance company hassles for our members."

Among other things, Beller said doctors are not being paid on medical claims for three to six months after the claims are filed. He said some insurance companies also are changing their rules in midstream and trying to recoup money already paid to doctors for claims dating back one to three years. Although tort reform was an issue in the fall elections, Beller said an agreement for a six-year moratorium on further changes in the legal system was reached last year by the medical community, trial lawyers and top leaders of the House and Senate. He said the OSMA will honor the agreement, with the understanding from Gov. Brad Henry that the governor will "revisit the issue" if a full-blown crisis develops preventing Oklahomans from getting medical care.

Newly elected House Speaker Todd Hiett said he was not part of any moratorium agreement and tort reform would be one of his top priorities. "We will be working hard to pass true tort reform this year," said Hiett, saying it was time to "put the brakes on out-of-control litigation." Hiett, R-Kellyville, heads the first Republican majority in the House since the 1921-22 session. He announced last week that workers' compensation reform will be his No. 1 goal this session.

Beller said the moratorium agreed to last year was proposed to allow time to gauge the impact of changes made in the system through the tort reform act adopted by the 2004 Legislature. "We want to see what happens," Beller said. Beller spoke earlier Tuesday to a group of attorneys in Oklahoma City, where he said PLICO got into financial trouble in the last few years because of an increase in claims and a new requirement from the state insurance agency that it build up its reserves to a certain level. "It was a double whammy," he said.

The new tort law placed a $300,000 cap on medical malpractice awards for non noneconomic damages, such as pain and suffering. Critics, however, say it is a "soft" cap that attorneys can get around. Other provisions seek to eliminate frivolous lawsuits and protect doctors who express sympathy to patients.

Ed Abel, Oklahoma City attorney, said he believes the increase in lawsuits -- and the corresponding rise in malpractice insurance rates -- is cyclical and not a sign the tort system is broken. One change that is needed, Abel said, is that the medical association needs to do a better job policing a small group of doctors who account for a high percentage of malpractice lawsuits.