Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal opened the state Legislature's special session today by strongly urging lawmakers to set aside their lifelong experiences and trust voters to make the right decision on malpractice damage award caps.
The session, the first summer gathering of legislators since 1997, was called because of a worsening shortage of doctors who are being driven to retire, cut back services or leave the state due to rising malpractice insurance costs.
"The crisis exists," Freudenthal said. "The magnitude of it will only increase if we fail to act."
The governor focused much of his speech on a proposed constitutional amendment that would allow certain caps in lawsuits against doctors.
"I again urge you to place before the voters the threshold question of whether the Legislature should have the power to limit the amount of noneconomic damages awarded by a court and jury in healthcare provider cases," Freudenthal said. "I would renew my plea to you to trust the decision-making capacity of the voters."
Caps on awards for pain and suffering or loss of enjoyment of life -- seen as a way to reduce losses for insurance companies and stem rising premiums for doctors -- has spurred heated debate in the Statehouse in recent years.
A proposal to alter the state constitution narrowly missed gaining a two-thirds majority in each chamber during the budget session earlier this year mainly because of concerns that injured patients may not receive the full amount due them in court.
Freudenthal pointed out that redress for economic damages, such as lost wages, medical expenses and caretaking costs, would be unaffected by caps on noneconomic awards. Punitive damages also would not be affected.
He also reminded lawmakers they would still have the option to set financial limits, should voters give them that right.
"Throughout our history, nearly 120 constitutional matters have been decided by the citizens," he said. "Our representative form of government reserves the right to decide constitutional content to the people.
"Let them exercise that right."
Freudenthal confided, in reaching his conclusion, that he had to resist his long leanings as both an attorney and a Democrat.
With Democrats, it's been "cradle to grave that we're supposed to oppose them," he said of caps. But he ultimately concluded, "The voter ought to have a say about this."
The governor dismissed arguments that voters "don't get it," on lawsuit reform. "I think they understand the issue."
On other legislation, Freudenthal recommended short-term assistance for doctors, including state payments of 25% of their premiums, or $35,000 maximum.
Because of concern about locking the state into expensive, long-term funding, he urged caution on measures that would expand an existing subsidy program for obstetric services and provide loans to doctors to pay for malpractice coverage.
Freudenthal also encouraged support for further study of creating a medical errors commission that would seek to reduce doctors' mistakes and create a system of payments for injured patients.
"You have the opportunity before you to take significant first steps toward improving the cost of access to healthcare in our state," he concluded. "In so doing, you will have addressed the short-term problems while laying the foundation for future debate on longer-term solutions."
The special session is expected to end Saturday.