Discussions Set on Tort Reform; Malpractice Bills on Agenda

Article excerpt

Byline: Christina Bellantoni, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

RICHMOND - Lawmakers in Virginia, where rising medical malpractice insurance rates have forced nearly 100 doctors to quit their practice in the past year, will take up legislation today that could bring tort reform.

Many in the General Assembly have said Virginia earns high rankings for its restrictive malpractice and tort laws. Still, the state's medical community is calling for malpractice-insurance reform to keep physicians from either quitting high-risk specialties such as surgery, obstetrics and gynecology or leaving the state and setting up their practice elsewhere.

Ann Hughes, director of legislative and political affairs for the Medical Society of Virginia, said doctors must be involved in the process to bring about change.

"We have doctors who can no longer afford to keep their doors open who are going out of practice," said Mrs. Hughes, whose group has organized a lobbying effort called "White Coats on Call" at the state Capitol.

"We are losing physicians," she said. "We've lost close to 100 in the last 12 months in Virginia."

Lawmakers nationwide have been trying to address tort reform. The Maryland General Assembly took up the issue last year, and President Bush has said he will tackle it during his second term.

The Republican-controlled legislature in Virginia will consider capping pain and suffering awards at $250,000 and limiting attorney fees for medical malpractice cases.

Delegate Brian J. Moran predicted the legislature would implement a few changes to the medical malpractice system. The Alexandria Democrat and lawyer said the state already has a conservative tort system.

"We don't need a total overhaul, but we will make some changes," he said.

House Majority Leader H. Morgan Griffith agreed. "We're up in the top already," said the Salem Republican, who also is a lawyer. "The insurance companies are playing with us."

Delegate Terry G. Kilgore, Gate City Republican, has sponsored an omnibus medical malpractice bill based on proposals offered earlier this month by the Joint Subcommittee Studying Risk Management Plans for Physicians and Hospitals.

The delegate's bill includes several proposals, such as revising the definition of malpractice to limit it to a tort action or breach of contract for personal injuries or wrongful death. It also proposes requiring liability insurers to submit annual reports to the State Corporation Commission.

Mr. Kilgore's bill also calls for a provision that would prohibit patients or their relatives from using a doctor's expression of sympathy as evidence in a medical malpractice lawsuit.

There are several identical bills proposed in the House and Senate.

The bills are pending in the House and Senate Courts of Justice committees. Each committee is expected to take up some of the measures today. …