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Operation Healthcare: Two Faces Of Medical Tort Reform

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Julie Kennedy's life was changed forever when her physician mistakenly operated on the wrong foot. Julie Kennedy's life was changed forever when her physician mistakenly operated on the wrong foot.
Dr. Norman Imes says the high cost of liability insurance led him to change his field of medical practice. Dr. Norman Imes says the high cost of liability insurance led him to change his field of medical practice.
Some Oklahoma physicians are leaving for Texas where there is a limit on settlements for "pain and suffering." Some Oklahoma physicians are leaving for Texas where there is a limit on settlements for "pain and suffering."

By Ashli Sims, The News On 6

TULSA, OK -- Some say the sweeping reform bill doesn't go far enough to fix a problem doctors say is driving up healthcare bills. They believe there can't be real reform without re-writing medical liability laws.

Like any debate, there are two sides: a doctor is forced out of business, and a patient is looking for relief from a medical mistake.

"Pain changes your life," said patient Julie Kennedy. "This is Methadone."

Pain changes your schedule, with days now measured in doses. It changes your activities with trips now limited by steps. It even causes changes in your family.

It's been a decade of change for what was supposed to be a simple "in-and-out" procedure to remove a bone fragment in her left ankle.

"They woke me up, and they said there's been a huge mistake we operated on the wrong foot," Kennedy said.

Julie Kennedy says she let the doctor operate on the correct foot on the condition that he take care of any problems caused by the first surgery.

"And when he ceased to take care of that, my husband and I knew we had to do something because the pain was getting worse," Kennedy said. 

Still in pain, with medical bills mounting, she filed suit in 2000. Her doctor's lawyers made her out to be anything but a victim.

"They had been filming me. They filmed me in Wal-Mart walking; they'd filmed me different places - trying to say that I was a liar, and I really wasn't in pain," Kennedy said. 

A Payne County jury decided her pain was real and her doctor was responsible.

"When they said that, I felt like they believe me, they know I'm not lying," said Julie Kennedy, a patient whose doctor operated on the wrong foot.

While a jury found that Julie Kennedy's doctor was liable for her injuries, some doctors say they've never had any legal trouble, and they still pay an exorbitant price.

"I was sued in 1976 when I first got into practice," said Dr. Norman Imes, physician.

Dr.Norman Imes says it was a shock to the system.

"That was my first introduction to how broke the system was when you could be sued for something that happened a week before you saw the patient," he said.

Dr. Imes was quickly dropped from the lawsuit, but he's never forgotten it, and the threat still looms -costing him thousands of dollars every year.

The physician made a career of dealing with lungs in crisis, but the crushing burden of medical liability insurance forced him out of pulmonary critical care and into sleep medicine.

He was so frustrated; he fought for medical tort reform in Oklahoma.

"And I thought it was very important to try to change the law so we would quit losing physicians in this state," Imes said.

Imes says Oklahoma is training plenty of doctors, but losing them to Texas. Texans voted in tort reform in 2003 that caps so-called "pain and suffering" awards at $250,000.

"You don't get the huge risk of the $10 million, $20 million, $30 million judgment against a physician or against a health care system," said Dr. Norman Imes, an Oklahoma physician seeking tort reform.

"That's one of the reasons we have lawsuit reform."

Imes agrees that the multi-million dollar awards are actually a pretty small fraction of all the medical liability awards.

"But if you're an insurance company you have to look at the worst case scenario. Because everyone has to pay it," he said.

The Texas Medical Association says medical malpractice lawsuits have dropped, average medical liability premiums have plummeted by $6,000, and the ranks of doctors have swelled to record heights.

In Oklahoma, doctors like Imes have stopped practicing some branches of medicine.

"It affects every day patient access to healthcare. And if we don't get it fixed, it's gonna get worse," said Dr. Norman Imes.

"If people say it runs people off, ya'know I'm sorry," said Julie Kennedy, a patient who won a malpractice lawsuit against a physician who operated on the wrong foot. "They have to have somewhere to be liable."

The General Accounting Office reports slashing medical malpractice costs by 25 to 30% would only cut healthcare costs by about half of one percent. But some doctors say that doesn't take into account defensive medicine, or the billions of dollars in extra tests ordered to protect physicians from lawsuits.

11/18/2009  Related Story: Operation Healthcare: Fraud Squad

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