President, Ditmore talk tort reform

Both Republicans want to lower the cap for damages in malpractice cases.
Friday, September 10, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 11:27 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 14, 2008

Mike Ditmore’s stance on tort reform got him some extra attention from President Bush on Tuesday.

The thousands of people waiting for Bush to speak at the Boone County Fairgrounds probably didn’t notice when Ditmore, the Republican candidate for the 19th District state Senate seat, slipped away from the bleachers. Secret Service agents escorted him to the grounds’ main entrance, where he boarded Bush’s bus and talked with the president about one of the main issues in both their campaigns.

“(Bush) said ‘Doc, how are you?’” said Ditmore, a former neurosurgeon. “We sat down for about five or 10 minutes and had a little chat, a little bonding. It’s not every day that you get to meet the president.”

Sitting on plush sofa seats lining the bus, Ditmore told Bush that rising malpractice insurance costs caused him to retire after nearly 25 years in private practice. Premiums rose from $60,000 to $108,000 in one year, he said, attributing the change to excessive damage awards in malpractice lawsuits.

Bush mentioned the conversation in his speech to a crowd of about 15,000 supporters.

“I met Mike Ditmore, sitting right there. … Lawsuits drove him out of business,” he said. “There’s one less good doctor available to help here in the state of Missouri.”

Both Bush and Ditmore propose capping noneconomic, or so-called “pain and suffering” damages awarded in court, thinking that would allow insurance companies to better predict losses and prevent dramatic increases in premiums. Bush has promoted a nationwide cap of $250,000.

Missouri legislators passed a law in 1986 capping noneconomic damages in medical malpractice cases at $350,000 — now $565,000 because of inflation — but an appellate judge’s 2002 ruling that allowed damages to be awarded to multiple family members essentially removed the cap.

Ditmore wants Missouri law rewritten to prevent this. The General Assembly has passed similar bills the past two years, but Gov. Bob Holden vetoed both, saying they were too broad.

Chuck Graham, 24th District state representative and Ditmore’s Democratic opponent in the Senate race, said he has voted against the most recent tort-reform bill. “It certainly went beyond medicine and the issues related to malpractice,” he said.

Graham said it is insurance companies’ overinvestment in the stock market and hard economic times — not medical malpractice suits — that have caused premiums to rise. He cited a report by the Missouri Department of Insurance that shows malpractice premiums are going up while awards are going down. Five malpractice payments reached the cap in 2003, compared with 13 the year before, Graham said.

Ditmore disagrees with the study, noting it omitted about 170 claims from self-insured health-care entities.

Graham, who uses a wheelchair, also said some existing caps on damages are too low, specifically a $200,000 cap for emergency room injuries.

“As someone with a severe disability for 23 years, it’s very expensive to deal with that, and $200,000 spread across a lifetime is not a lot of compensation,” he said.

Graham also accused Ditmore of seeking office for selfish reasons, arguing personal economic goals seem to be driving Ditmore’s campaign.

Ditmore, however, said the general public should care about tort reform because malpractice premiums are driving doctors like him out of business or to other states. For example, he said, the number of neurosurgeons in Missouri has decreased from 103 to 88 during the past 18 months.

Bush echoed Ditmore’s sentiments in his speech.

“To make sure that health care is available and affordable, we need medical-liability reform in America,” Bush said. “Let me tell you: These frivolous lawsuits against our docs are making it harder for good doctors to practice medicine, and they’re running up the cost of your health care.”

Ditmore said he was the only local candidate to meet Bush in Columbia. Bush campaign workers called him Saturday to ask questions about tort reform, then called times Monday to arrange the visit.

Ditmore compared his conversation with Bush to a living room chat and said the president was sincere, warm and quite nice.

“I had the impression that what you see privately is what you see publicly. … He’s a pretty common guy that happens to be the president of the United States,” he said.

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