Greenwood doctor stresses need for tort reform
By By Fredie Carmichael / staff writer
April 22, 2002
A prominent Greenwood surgeon says the high cost of medical insurance and a lingering malpractice lawsuit forced him out of work two months ago.
Dr. John Lucas III is a fourth-generation Mississippi physician who stopped his surgical practice on Feb. 22.
He met with The Meridian Star editorial board last week to talk about why he supports civil justice reform, more commonly called tort reform, and how it would benefit all Mississippians.
The Meridian Star: How will touring the state and speaking to local business leaders help your cause? What do you want the people to do about tort reform?
Lucas: It's important for everybody who has an interest in this to educate as many people as they can on the facts and on the harm it's doing to Mississippi. The doctors are leaving, the hospitals don't have funds to hire nurses or to modernize, doctors are retiring early or not delivering the care the used to because they can't afford the high malpractice premiums to deliver babies.
The Star: Do you attribute all of that to tort reform?
Lucas: St. Paul pulled out of Mississippi when they were losing $2 for every $1 of premium that they collected. And it was not because of the downturn of the stock market. The reason they are pulling out is because it's such a losing business.
The state of Mississippi granted … a 75 percent rate increase to St. Paul. And even after having gotten that, they thought it would still not be profitable to insure the doctors and hospitals in Mississippi because of the risk excess judgment and they've been proven right.
Just in the last month there has been a $3.5 million verdict in Jackson, a $5 million verdict in Tupelo and a $12 verdict against a hospital in Greenville.
The Star: When you talk about tort reform, is a cap on damage awards essentially the key element or are there others?
Lucas: That's the most important part, but there are several other components.
One is if I'm responsible according to the jury for 1 percent of the patient's injury, I can be forced to pay up to 50 percent of the verdict if the other side doesn't have the funds to satisfy the judgment.
Another key component is that we'd like to have a sliding scale on lawyers fees. We think that at some point it ought to drop down from the 40 percent.
It ought to go to 30 (percent), 25 (percent) or even 15 percent, like it is in some places at some point in the scale. We'd also like to see the expert witnesses be board-certified in the same specialty that the doctor is that they're suing. The also ought to be a licensed physician of Mississippi.
A physician goes into medicine to help people. And to have to go to work everyday and be afraid that every patient you operate on or see in the office might potentially be able to sue you for a bad outcome that wasn't any of your fault, for them to be able to get a huge judgment and risk all of the savings that you have for your family is not a pleasant situation.
It's that kind of fear that makes people leave the state.
The Star: Do you think you're making any headway?
Lucas: I'm educating a lot of people. And in my hometown, if they had a vote today it would easily pass. But in other parts of the state, it hasn't reached that point yet.
Doctors and other business people have to educate everyone on the impact. Mississippi having such a terrible legal climate is preventing businesses from coming here, is preventing doctors from coming here and forcing some doctors to leave.
We already have the fewest doctors of any state in the nation, with the exception of maybe Idaho, per 100,000 patients. The national average is about 250 per 100,000, and in 1990 we had about 125 and in 2000 we about 165 per 100,000. That's way below the national average. We should trying to encourage physicians to come here to serve the people of Mississippi.
The people who are going to be hurt the most when doctors leave are going to be the poor. Because if you have over-worked physicians and somebody leaves and their work load is increased. The people they're going to choose not to see are going to be the Medicaid patients. The patients without insurance.