Insurance a Suspect in Health Costs; Panel Debates Malpractice, Tort Reform, Even Overhauling the Way Insurers Work

Article excerpt

Byline: BRANDON LARRABEE, The Times-Union

ATLANTA -- Trying to muddle through the problems contributing to the ballooning cost of health care in Georgia and across the nation, a group of lobbyists, lawyers and advocates touched on a range of issues at a discussion sponsored by Sen. Mitch Seabaugh, R-Sharpsburg.

Ideas for reducing medical costs included limits on medical malpractice lawsuits, revamping the insurance industry and asking the governor to appoint a blue-ribbon commission. Seabaugh said at the end of the meeting he would work on some of the suggestions made by panelists.

One idea that drew a lot of attention was tort reform. While legislation proposed by several Republican members of the Senate calls for tightening expert witness rules and making several other procedural changes to the state's civil justice system, the most controversial provision of the bill is a limit on damages such as pain and suffering.

Under the proposal, which Seabaugh co-sponsored, the maximum amount each individual hospital or doctor involved in a case could be forced to pay would be $250,000; the most a victim or their survivors could collect would be $750,000.

But Jim Webb, an attorney on the panel, said medical-malpractice costs accounted for only 0.5 percent to 2 percent of all health-care costs. Even if tort reform were to slice that price tag in half, Webb said, it would only shrink medical costs by 0.25 percent to 1 percent.

"Yet the legal system seems to get all the attention in this, and that's not the problem," Webb said.

Kirk McGhee, executive director of the Georgia Association of Health Plans, argued that medical malpractice lawsuits can hurt access in rural areas of the state by forcing doctors who lose court cases out of business. …