Doctors, Patients Consider Reform; Sides in Medical Malpractice Debate Stand Firm as Pressure Mounts for Legislators to Act

Article excerpt

Byline: BRANDON LARRABEE, Times-Union staff writer

ATLANTA -- It isn't just the pain of losing his wife to cervical cancer nearly five years ago that haunts Max Reinhart and his two children.

It is the hurt that comes from knowing her doctors could have done something about it.

"It's a pain that is caused by, not so much a death per se, but rather a wrongful death," said Reinhart, 58, who teaches at the University of Georgia. ". . . I do not consider myself the same professor I was before."

Reinhart eventually won a settlement from the doctors and hospitals who failed to detect the cancer and its severity.

"This is not one of those huge, McDonald's, $20 million thing, somebody spilled some coffee in their lap," he said.

Meanwhile, Don Snell's hospital eventually had to start providing its own medical-malpractice insurance through a company it spun off. To Snell, president and chief executive officer of MCG Health Inc. -- the hospital affiliated with the Medical College of Georgia in Augusta -- the premiums required by standard insurance carriers were too high for a hospital that has paid out only $100,000 for malpractice cases during the past four years.

"Our claims experience is one of the best in the country," Snell said.

Even after two years of a high-profile struggle over medical malpractice lawsuits, neither medical professionals bent on curbing what they say are out-of-control trial lawyers, nor the consumer advocates opposing an alleged effort to undermine the powers of juries are ready to back down.

And some observers say that, with a Republican Party more receptive to medical malpractice reform firmly controlling the Gold Dome, this could be the year that some sort of bill is passed.

"We haven't reduced our priority for passing meaningful tort reform at all," said Joseph Parker, president of the Georgia Hospital Association, which so far has led the charge on the latest efforts to pass so-called "tort reform."

If anything, the association has turned up the heat. Just days before the Nov. 2 election, it released a report by the Deloitte consulting firm saying many Georgia hospitals were in danger of being forced out of business by an array of economic pressures, including malpractice insurance.

Next, on the day House Republicans chose their new leadership, the association released a poll showing a majority of Georgians support restrictions on malpractice lawsuits.

And the association and a coalition of related groups have hired an Atlanta-based firm to handle lobbying and some public relations work in the medical-malpractice battle.

It seems to be paying off. When the Senate's GOP leadership announced two weeks ago a list of five bills it would file ahead of the January session of the General Assembly, medical-malpractice reform was the third piece of legislation on the list. …