- The Washington Times - Monday, November 18, 2002

One of the top issues that needs to be on the agenda for the next Congress (and many state legislatures as well) will be tort reform in particular, the problems resulting from escalating jury awards in medical malpractice cases that have shaken the American medical system, Sen. John Ensign, Nevada Republican, told The Washington Times.
But Mr. Ensign, perhaps the Senate's most tenacious proponent of medical-liability reform, made clear that a battle lies ahead on Capitol Hill. In September, the House voted overwhelmingly for such legislation, only to have a parallel Senate bill sponsored by Mr. Ensign bottled up by the Democratic majority.
One positive sign, Mr. Ensign says, is that a number of recent liability insurance-related problems are driving home to the public the need for reform. The state's only Level-I trauma facility, located at the University of Nevada Medical Center in Las Vegas, was forced to shut its doors following the mass resignations of surgeons, who said they risked bankrupting their families if they were hit with a seven-figure lawsuit from increasingly aggressive personal-injury lawyers. Level-I trauma centers staffed around the clock with a variety of specialists to provide care to seriously injured patients, including victims of shootings, stabbings and car accidents are an integral part of this country's first line of defense against catastrophic terrorist attack.
Fortunately, the Nevada facility reopened. In August, Gov. Kenny Guinn and the Nevada legislature agreed on a compromise plan aimed at resolving the problem. The new law placed a $350,000 cap on pain and suffering damages, with two exceptions, added at the insistence of trial lawyers: "cases of gross malpractice" and cases deemed to be "exceptional circumstances" however defined.
While the legislation was a step in the right direction, it clearly left some serious liability-related problems unresolved, among them the serious shortage of OB/GYNs in the greater Las Vegas area. Nancy Allen, 48. had to wait six months to have suspicious lumps removed from her uterus and ovaries because she could not get an appointment for surgery. In an interview with the Las Vegas Review-Journal earlier this month, Mrs. Allen said she would still be awaiting a hysterectomy had she not stormed into her doctor's office and refused to leave until the procedure was scheduled. Meanwhile, the Clark County (Las Vegas) OB/GYN Society said that 30 obstetricians have either left town, retired early or stopped delivering babies in recent months because they cannot find malpractice insurance or afford the soaring rates.
Nevada is hardly the exception. According to the American Medical Association, 12 states among them New York, New Jersey, Florida, Ohio, Oregon, West Virginia, Mississippi and Texas face serious dangers of doctor shortages due to spiraling insurance costs.
"This one's going to be a tough one," Mr. Ensign says of the prospects for the enactment of tort reform in the next Congress. The best thing going for his side is that "we've got a great president with a great bully pulpit" that can be used to negate the lobbying power of groups like the American Trial Lawyers Association, Mr. Ensign said.
President Bush's willingness may well make the difference in the next Congress.


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