Cfficials in Carbondale, Ill., which this spring lost its only two neurosurgeons because of soaring medical malpractice costs, could take matters into their own hands tonight with an ordinance limiting malpractice lawsuits. Carbondale Mayor Brad Cole on Monday said he would again ask the city council to pass an ordinance limiting malpractice lawsuits.
Cole brought the ordinance up for vote June 15, but the vote was tied 3 to 3.
In March, neurosurgeons Sumeer Lal, M.D., and Theo Mellion, M.D., announced they would close their Carbondale practices at the end of May and cited rising medical malpractice insurance costs. For example, Lal said his premium would leap to $250,000 from $60,000 and with tail coverage quoted at $227,000.
The physicians' departure left Illinois south of Springfield without a neurosurgeon.
"We haven't had any neurosurgery here in two months," said Tom Firestone, M.D., president of Southern Illinois Healthcare, which owns Memorial Hospital of Carbondale, where Mellion founded the region's only neurosurgery department 10 years ago and recruited Lal to join him.
Lal has since moved to South Carolina, Firestone said. Mellion remains in Carbondale but is no longer practicing. Neither physician could be reached for comment.
Firestone said it is a matter of time and numbers before someone dies without accessable neurosurgery care.
"We've had to do some creative transports," he said, citing helicopter transports to Chicago, Little Rock, Ark., St. Louis, and Springfield, Ill. Finding available capacity is often a problem and inclement weather, grounding helicopters, is a constant threat, he said. "No one has died yet, but we've had some close calls," he said.
Meanwhile, Gov. Rod Blagojevich has recalled the Illinois General Assembly into special session in an attempt to end a budget deadlock. Medical malpractice is an important "side issue" being discussed along with the budget, said Rebecca Raush, the governor's spokeswoman.
"The governor and just about everyone down here recognizes it's at a crisis level and something has to be done," Raush said. She said the problem hit home for the governor's family when Eileen Murphy, M.D., the obstetrician/gynecologist who in April delivered First Lady Patti Blagojevich's daughter, Annie, retired from medical practice because of high malpractice insurance costs.
Illinois has a state law known as "home rule," which delegates to municipalities powers not expressly used by the state.
Cole wants to use home rule to cap noneconomic damages in medical malpractice cases at three times economic damages and force disputes that arise in Jackson County to be settled by courts there. Home rule applies when there is a local concern and, Cole said, "We only have so many doctors down here."
"It absolutely is a stretch, but a lot of things are," Cole said. "It's never been challenged so there is no precident. for disallowing it either."
Downstate, Marion's city council passed a nearly identical ordinance June 28. According to Firestone, nearby Herrin is considering doing the same.
"I'm not sure there is any legal precedence for something like this," he said, "but I think it's a strong message that the community supports the doctors."
What's not clear is whether such ordinances could withstand a court challenge, said Ken Alderson, executive director of the Illinois Municipal League. Alderson said he can't recall a town trying to use home rule to regulate litigation.
-- The Associated Press contributed to this story