Isle doctors lobby for tort reform
A group blames legal costs for the declining numbers of physicians
KAHULUI » Dr. Colleen Inouye, the first female obstetrician/gynecologist in private practice on Maui, said the rising price of medical malpractice insurance was one of the reasons why she has given up delivering babies.
Inouye, who decided in December to work only as a gynecologist, said she hopes lawmakers will pass legislation that lowers medical malpractice premiums, which can range from $35,000 to $100,000 annually for obstetricians.
"We have to do something about tort reform because without going ahead and doing something about tort reform, we won't be able to get more obstetricians in Hawaii," said Inouye, who has been a physician on Maui for 24 years.
Her decision to abandon her obstetrics practice represents what some doctors say is a growing trend statewide.
The Hawaii Medical Association, representing some 1,200 physicians in Hawaii, is holding a "Patient Access To Care" forum today on Maui, including talks about reducing malpractice premiums. The forum starts at 5:30 p.m. at the Kihei Community Center.
The association is supporting legislation in the 2008 state Legislature that would limit the "noneconomic damages" that can be awarded in a malpractice case, such as pain and suffering, said April Troutman, the organization's communications director.
Troutman said the economic damages, including a patient's cost of medical treatment, would remain unlimited.
One of the measures, House Bill 1992, limiting noneconomic damages to no more than $250,000 and establishing a limit of $3 million for noneconomic damages that are catastrophic, is scheduled to be heard by the state House Consumer Protection Committee tomorrow.
The committee meets at 2 p.m. in Room 325 at the state Capitol.
Troutman said in Texas, where lawmakers have enacted tort reform, physicians were at one point applying for licenses so much that the state had to increase the number of employees to review applications.
After a net loss of 14 obstetricians from 2001 to 2003 before tort reform, Texas experienced a net gain of 163 obstetricians, according to the association. Robert Toyofuku, representing the Consumer Lawyers of Hawaii, raised questions about the society's argument that malpractice premiums were influencing the number of physicians.
"It's much more complicated than what they're saying," Toyofuku said.
Toyofuku said for a person suffering a very bad injury, $250,000 in noneconomic damage is not enough.
He said an attorney might spend $150,000 to win a claim in court, leaving only $100,000 for a bad injury.
Toyofuku said the House Bill 1992 would make establishing damage claims difficult for children who have yet to establish their future earning potential and housekeeping spouses who have no visible income.
Toyofuku said at the same time there is no guarantee that the physicians will relocate to rural areas such as Maui.
He said rural areas of Texas have experienced no increase in the number of physicians as a result of tort reform.
"You're taking away the rights of the injured party with the hope and the prayer the doctors are going to move to the neighbor islands," he said.