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Doctors suffer without reform

Temple Sellers

Who will care for your loved ones in a life-threatening situation? Who will be there at 3 a.m. while the rest of the community is sleeping? Where will you turn when the one area of your life that affects everything else n your health n fails?

Thankfully, most Georgia residents haven't had to grapple with these questions. Georgia hospitals and physicians continue to stand by, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, ready to care for whoever requires immediate medical attention.

But without legislative action at the 2004 Georgia General Assembly, Georgians' access to timely health care services is in jeopardy. Presently, Georgia is experiencing a medical liability insurance crisis that has hospitals and other health providers gasping for air. Due to large jury awards and out-of-court settlements, insurance premiums n for both Georgia hospitals and physicians n are skyrocketing.

As insurance becomes unaffordable or unavailable, many Georgia hospitals are being forced to reduce staffing and eliminate vital services while some doctors have no choice but to leave their practices or move to other states. Ultimately, Georgia residents suffer.

Recently, the American Medical Association listed Georgia as one of 12 states in the "crisis" category for medical liability. Upon further review, it's not hard to figure out why. Consider this:

? According to Jury Verdict Research, from 1994 to 2000, jury awards for medical malpractice claims jumped an alarming 176 percent;

? From 1987 to 1999, medical liability claim payments in Georgia increased by almost three times the rate of inflation;

? In 2000, insurers for Georgia physicians doled out $100 million in damages for just 200 Georgians; and

? From 1999 to 2002, annual liability premiums for Georgia hospitals have soared 177 percent, forcing many hospitals, especially those in rural areas, to consider closing their doors completely or operating without liability coverage. Presently, one rural Georgia hospital is operating without any coverage while several others have purchased low coverage, high deductible policies.

Georgia's health care community supports a patient's right to be fully compensated for economic losses, such as past and future medical expenses and lost wages resulting from medical negligence. However, awards for non-economic damages (pain and suffering) have risen faster than our health system can bear.

Without major changes to Georgia's civil justice system, a small group of people, led by personal injury attorneys who commonly retain at least 40 percent of jury awards, will continue to benefit from the current system while Georgia's remaining 8 million residents suffer in the form of higher health care costs and reduced access to services.

To preserve and maintain access to Georgia hospitals and physicians, the Georgia legislature must enact common sense reforms. These reforms, which have already been introduced as bills in the General Assembly, will result in increased efficiencies and fairness in our judicial system. They include:

? Enacting reasonable limits on damages for pain and suffering (HB 1422) while protecting the right to recover all economic damages such as lost wages and medical expenses.

? Discouraging trial lawyers from suing hospitals and doctors in distant counties just because juries in those counties award higher damages than juries in the county where the hospital is located or the physician lives (HB 1497).

? Limiting any damage awards to the degree of fault (HB 1421) by the defendant (currently a defendant who is only one percent at fault can be required to pay up to 100 percent of a judgment).

? Requiring that expert witnesses (HB 1420) be in the same field of specialty as the person they are testifying against.

? Helping hospitals and physicians continue to provide emergency room services by eliminating damages for pain and suffering in emergency settings (HB 1419).

As Georgia's health care community tries to meet the growing health care demands of a growing, aging population, the time for change in our civil justice system is now.

Join us in this important legislative battle to ensure that Georgia's health care providers will always be there to provide the right care at the right time. For many people, it's a matter of life and death.

Temple Sellers is a legislative adviser for the Georgia Hospital Association..