A Missouri Supreme Court ruling on Tuesday will put rural residents at a disadvantage when it comes to securing health care close to their home, according to Lynn Olson, president and CEO for Hannibal Regional Hospital.
“It really hurts Missourians,” he said. “Access to care in rural areas is already tough. Seniors and other people that can’t travel long distances, or it would be difficult to travel long distances, would be put at a further disadvantage and that is to me not the right policy for Missouri.”
By a 4-3 decision Tuesday, the high court said the 2005 “tort reform” law violated the right to a jury trial by capping noneconomic damages in medical malpractice cases at $350,000. The limit had applied to lawsuits alleging health care providers were at fault for injuries or deaths.
The monetary limit had been a focal point of a law passed by the Republican-led Legislature and signed by then-Gov. Matt Blunt, who staged one of the tort bill-signing ceremonies at Hannibal Regional Hospital. They had hoped it would help reign in rising medical malpractice premiums for doctors and thus improve the availability of health care.
“It’s very disappointing that they overturned the previous legislation. Tort reform was instrumental in keeping medical liability premiums affordable for physicians,” said Dr. Lent Johnson, medical director of the Hannibal Clinic. “Additionally it reversed a trend with physicians moving out of the state to practice in states with more favorable liability laws. This decision will result in higher premiums for physicians making practice more difficult in this state and for some small practices may make the difference between continuing on or retiring, a real blow for rural health care access. This is another example of rising costs of health care that in the end will result in higher costs to patients.”
“This will drive liability insurance costs up to all levels of health care in the state,” said Dr, Michael Bukstein, president and CEO at the Hannibal Clinic. “The additional cost will undoubtedly be ultimately passed on to all consumers of health care and will tend to limit access to those groups with fixed benefits such as Medicare and Medicaid.”
Removing the damage “cap” could send doctors already here and new physicians to any of the 30-plus states which have enacted medical tort reform laws.
“I’m not a lawyer. I don’t know what the basis is that this was struck down, but clearly I worry about our ability to retain who we have and to compete for new physicians whose states have limits. That’s probably my biggest concern,” he said. “It’s not a good time to put us at a competitive disadvantage. It’s hard enough to recruit doctors to rural areas. I think Hannibal’s a great area and I love living here, but we don’t need any disadvantages to be added to our situation.”
Page 2 of 2 - Olson anticipates the matter will be brought up during the next legislative session.
“I hope it can be reconsidered and a bill passed in the Legislature that passes the muster with the Supreme Court, but I’m not sure what that will take given the fact it’s been up and down this path once before,” he said.
(The Associated Press contributed to this story.)