With or without doctors, state GOP pushing tort reform

Wednesday, January 19th 2005, 4:57 pm
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) -- Republicans are forging ahead with lawsuit reform legislation, despite the Oklahoma State Medical Association's decision to bow out of a fray that drew hundreds of doctors to the Capitol in 2004.

Sen. Glenn Coffee, R-Oklahoma City, said Wednesday he will introduce a tort reform bill in the Senate, where he expects it to be bottled up by the Democratic leadership.

Coffee expects similar legislation by Rep. Fred Morgan, R-Oklahoma City, to come out of the House, which is controlled by Republicans for the first time in more than eight decades.

On Tuesday, Dr. Jack Beller of the Oklahoma State Medical Association said his group would not push for more lawsuit reform this year.

He said the OSMA will abide by an agreement it reached last year on a six-year moratorium on tort reform to give time for changes made in 2004 to work.

Those changes included a $300,000 cap on non-economic damages and a provision to prevent frivolous lawsuits. Critics say the cap is not absolute and lawyers can get around it.

The agreement Beller spoke of involved Senate and House leaders, the OSMA, the Hospital Association and the Oklahoma Trial Lawyers Association.

Coffee said Republicans believe more changes are needed to stem an increase in lawsuits, including malpractice suits against doctors.

"A lot of people ran on this issue," Coffee said. "Clearly, medical reform is a big part of it."

Beller said the association's board of trustees had decided its top priority will be legislation to shore up the Physicians Liability Insurance Co., which writes most of the insurance for state doctors. He said the OSMA also will seek legislative help in dealing with burdensome insurance requirements.

Beller said Gov. Brad Henry has said he would revisit the tort reform issue if a crisis develops sharply curtailing access to care by Oklahoma citizens.

Henry had no comment on the OSMA's action, but Paul Sund, spokesman, said the agreement on a moratorium was not binding on the governor or legislative leaders.

"That's an agreement between the associations involved in the legislation," Sund said.

Henry previously said he was open to tweaking the tort reform system.

Coffee also said it was solely an agreement by parties charged with coming up with tort reform legislation a year ago.

He said if trial lawyers get involved in the current tort reform debate, "I hope the OSMA will reconsider its position."

"If the lawyers are going to engage and discuss tort reform, then it makes no sense for the OSMA to abide by the moratorium," he said.

Among other things, Coffee said lawsuit reform proponents want to toughen the cap on non-economic damages and change a provision of the tort law that allows an institution, such as a hospital, to be found 100 percent negligent for the actions of a doctor or others.

He said that provision should be repealed and replaced with one that "would basically hold the person who created the harm financially responsible instead of just the guy with all the money."

He said the new law would allow percentages to be assigned for degrees of liability.