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Opinion: State must limit malpractice awards

From the St. Joseph News-Press:

Two states, two wildly different conclusions about what is permissible when someone accuses another of medical malpractice.

In Kansas, a person who is found to have suffered injury at the hands of a medical care provider is entitled to a jury award of actual damages and a second award of non-economic damages determined to be justified by pain and suffering. The second award is capped at $250,000 — a limit upheld recently by the Kansas Supreme Court.

In Missouri, a person in the same circumstances is entitled to a jury award of actual damages and a second award of. well, whatever number a group of local folks on a jury come up with. A reasonable limit of $350,000 on non-economic damages was struck down this summer by a divided Missouri Supreme Court.

If in fact a damages cap is not permitted by Missouri’s constitution — despite a high court ruling to that effect 20 years ago — then the document needs to be amended by a vote of the people as soon as possible. Or if some other remedy is available, then our state’s leaders should close ranks and bring this about for the good of everyone without delay.

What is needed now is the same kind of bipartisan good government that occurred in 2005 under former Gov. Matt Blunt, when lawmakers passed the overturned damages cap.

Our elected representatives, like those in approximately 30 other states, banded together at that time to address that era’s crisis caused by out-of-control malpractice lawsuits and damage awards that were driving up the cost of liability insurance and driving away doctors. Their efforts succeeded in reversing those trends.

The problems that arise from eliminating liability limits are multiple:

There is little restraint on lawsuits that are filed just to capture an excessive multimillion-dollar award. Lawsuits that lack merit still can be costly to defend.

The entire climate for business investment and expansion is colored by soaring costs for medical liability insurance that spill over to employers. The contrast with our border state gives Kansas an edge in business recruitment.

The cost of insurance — when it can be obtained — puts doctors’ practices in peril and may cause many to choose other states to pursue their careers. Access to physicians, especially specialists, is put at risk.

Attracting doctors to underserved communities, such as the 80 percent of Missouri counties that have a shortage of physicians, becomes more difficult.

Costly “defensive medicine” — more tests and procedures ordered solely to head off lawsuits — becomes more common.

We don’t disagree with the notion that reducing preventable medical errors must take the highest priority. In the same vein, victims are entitled to fair compensation.

However, experience has shown removing caps on medical malpractice awards opens the system to abuses that can threaten access to health care and impair economic growth. Reasonable limits are a must.

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