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Malpractice claims in Oklahoma drop a year after reforms

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) -- Reforms to the state's civil justice system passed last year have contributed to a drop in medical malpractice cases, officials say.

"Our claims have gone down as dramatically, if not more dramatically, than Texas' have," said State Finance Director Scott Meacham.

Tony Laizure, president of the Oklahoma Trial Lawyers Association, said that from July 2003 to this July, medical negligence cases dropped more than 60% in the eight counties whose cases are reported on the Oklahoma Supreme Court Network.

Laizure credits tort reform improvements passed by the Legislature in 2003.

The new law requires that each case be reviewed by an expert who determines if there was medical negligence.

While the number of cases has dropped, malpractice insurance rates have not and may not for awhile.

The Dallas Morning News reported recently that the Texas reform law has not pushed physicians' premiums down, although malpractice cases have declined at least 80% in most major Texas counties.

Laizure said the state needs time to see whether two years of reform will produce positive changes.

"These rates don't go up overnight and they don't go down overnight," he said. "You have to give these things some time to take effect."

He said that is why lawyers and doctors signed off this year on what has been termed a voluntary six-year moratorium on additional lawsuit reform changes.

Laizure said a better assessment can be made after malpractice filings and the economy has stabilized.

"I think you get a fairer picture as to whether or not the reforms that were passed are true reforms and really have worked," he said.

Dr. Jack Beller, immediate past president of the Oklahoma State Medical Association, said physicians will continue lobbying for changes.

"We have already been in contact with the governor and with the legislative leaders about further needs," Beller said.

Beller said reforms in Texas have lowered the premiums for at least one company. Beller said the company was able to cut premiums by 12% and is considering an additional 4% cut.

"If we can get significant reform passed, then it will have similar effects in Oklahoma," he said.
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