Side-stepping legislation is nothing new in state legislatures, particularly in Illinois, where the leader of the Illinois Senate last week, amid an outcry by opposing legislators over the handling of a medical malpractice reform bill, ended the tumult by closing down the Senate.
According to an Associated Press account of events, Illinois State Senate President Emil Jones Jr. (D-Chicago) adjourned the Senate Thursday after Democrats backed out of plans to consider a Republican-sponsored med mal reform bill and Republicans retaliated by attempting parliamentary maneuvers to block other legislative actions.
Illinois is on the American Medical Association's list of states in crisis due to soaring malpractice insurance rates. President Bush has visited Southern Illinois - an area in which courts are dubbed "judicial hell holes" by tort reform advocates -- to spotlight the issue. Meanwhile, Gov. Rod Blagojevich, a Democrat, has called for mediation, though no sessions have been held for more than a month. Against that backdrop, the state's General Assembly punted again on reform legislation.
"Am I happy about this? No," Kenneth Printen, M.D., an Evanston, Ill., surgeon and president of the Illinois State Medical Society, told Modern Physician. "This takes the debate off the floor of the Senate and keeps it pretty much behind closed doors. It's like parliamentary subterfuge."
SB 150 was introduced by Sen. David Luechtefeld (R-Okawville), whose district includes the Southern Illinois city of Carbondale where the only two neurosurgeons performing cranial surgeries south of Springfield -- partners Theo Mellion, M.D., and Sumeer Lal, M.D. -- left the state last spring due to the medical malpractice liability situation. See Modern Physician, July 8, 2004.
The uproar in the Senate last week was triggered when the bill, which was before the 10-member Senate Judiciary Committee, with a 6-4 Democrat majority, was transferred to the 13-member Senate Executive Committee, of which Jones and eight other Democrats are members.
Jones, according to the AP account, said the lawyer-dominated Judiciary Committee was not making sufficient progress and sending it to the executive committee would speed things up.
"We felt we had a really good opportunity to get it through the Judiciary Committee," said Luechtefeld, in a telephone interview with Modern Physician. "We have two Democrats from Southern Illinois, James Clayborne Jr. (D-East St. Louis) and William Haine (D-Alton) who would have found it very difficult not to vote for it. Haine said he would vote for it. Clayborne didn't make a commitment. We were promised several times that we would get a vote and that didn't happen."
The near miss is frustrating, Luechtefeld said, because he's convinced if the bill reaches the Senate floor, despite a Democratic majority, "it would carry big and put a lot of pressure on the House."
Luechtefeld's bill calls for caps of $500,000 for hospitals and $250,000 for physicians on noneconomic damages. It also would render inadmissible as evidence in a medical malpractice case an apology by a physician to a patient within 72 hours from the time they learn about inadequate care or an unanticipated outcome.
It would protect a physician's personal assets from attachment in a malpractice judgment provided he or she had at least $1 million in malpractice insurance coverage.
The bill also includes a two-year pilot of the "Sorry Works" program to determine the financial impact of physicians or hospital officials promptly apologizing for medical errors. Printen said the Veterans Health Administration has some experience with a similar program, which also requires levels of mediation prior to filing a lawsuit.
"It's not the total answer to the problem in our state, but certainly it could prove valuable in lessening the number of frivolous lawsuits," Printen said.
The legislative action -- or inaction -- comes as the harsh med mal climate in Illinois appears to be softening. Last week, Chicago-based ISMIE Mutual Insurance Co. reported paying out $150.4 million to cover malpractice liabilities in 2004, a drop of 10% over the previous year. See Modern Physician March 15, 2005.