Illinois Legislature Fails Again at Tort Reform

Published September 1, 2004

Even though medical malpractice reform took center stage during a budget battle that saw the Illinois General Assembly extend its 2004 session a record 54 days, legislators adjourned on July 24 with a record $46 billion spending plan and no reform.

The legislators failed to reach agreement on reform even though calls for medical malpractice reform have been so loud that Governor Rod Blagojevich (D) said he is contemplating calling legislators back into session to address the issue.

Physicians’ Property Created Chasm

State Senator Kirk W. Dillard (R-Westmont) led the state senate’s malpractice reform effort. He said he was “deeply disappointed that after thousands of hours of legislators’, health care providers’, insurers’, and trial lawyers’ time, the legislature adjourned after nearly 60 extra days of session without achieving medical malpractice reform.”

Dillard said, “I believe we came fairly close, but the gigantic chasm [between the two sides] was protection of physicians’ personal assets. While trial lawyers hardly ever go after a doctor’s personal assets, it is a major psychological issue to physicians, and trial lawyers love to bluff physicians into being scared they’ll lose their children’s college savings, retirement funds, or home.”

“Let me assure you, we’re not done with the issue of medical malpractice,” Blagojevich said at an evening news conference after the budget was approved and the legislature had adjourned for the session.

“We are disappointed that the legislature failed to pass meaningful litigation reform this spring,” said Kenneth J. Printen, president of the Illinois State Medical Society. “We will continue to persevere in our efforts to improve Illinois’ litigation system and are hopeful that state lawmakers will address the crisis when they reconvene later this year.”

Republicans Gain Leverage

Republican legislators tried to exploit a rift among Democrats–who control the governorship, both houses of the General Assembly, and most statewide offices–to push for malpractice reform. When the state failed to pass its budget by the May 31 deadline, a supermajority vote became necessary, giving Republicans extra leverage in budget negotiations.

Republicans were joined by several Democrat legislators whose districts have been hit hard by an exodus of medical specialists such as neurosurgeons and obstetricians. Across a 22-county swath of southern Illinois, for instance, no doctor will deliver a baby, Illinois media have widely reported.

Nonetheless, other Democrats stood firm, backed by the politically powerful Illinois Trial Lawyers Association. The Democrats insisted on a bill that would be acceptable to the trial lawyers, and the large gap between the two proposals killed any chance for significant malpractice reform.

State Senator Frank Watson (R-Greenville), a leader in the fight for malpractice reform, said, “We all worked very hard to win meaningful malpractice reform this session.” He pledged, “I consider this only a temporary setback and will renew my efforts to adopt meaningful reform.”

More than 80 bills addressing medical liability were introduced during the legislative session. Proposals included laws intended to reduce the number of frivolous lawsuits against physicians and to protect doctors’ personal assets from malpractice suits. Caps on non-economic damages, which have made up more than 80 percent of the money given in jury awards over the past few years, were also under discussion.

Courts Rate Poorly

Depending on one’s medical specialty, malpractice insurance premiums in Illinois can be more than triple those charged in neighboring states. Several years ago, more than 30 companies were writing malpractice insurance in Illinois, but as the number of lawsuits and size of jury awards began to climb, insurance companies began pulling out of the state.

Only four companies now write malpractice insurance in Illinois, and all four have instituted moratoriums on new business in at least some counties.

The Illinois state court system ranks as one of nation’s worst, according to the 2004 State Liability Ranking Study of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Institute for Legal Reform, which surveyed senior corporate attorneys from all 50 states, including 201 from Illinois.

Overall, the Illinois state court system was ranked 44th, meaning only six other states were ranked worse. Two county court systems in Illinois–Madison County and Cook County–were ranked this year as the nation’s 3rd and 5th worst jurisdictions.

Illinois also ranked this year among the five states most likely to award excessive punitive damages, according to the Chamber study.

Governor Faces Political Dilemma

Dillard said he had not heard that Blagojevich is considering calling another extra session of the General Assembly to discuss malpractice reform. “If Governor Blagojevich is predictable on any front, it is if there is a political stunt to be had, he’ll do it. Here he needs to be careful, because he is closely aligned with the Illinois Trial Lawyers Association, who would prefer to do nothing,” Dillard noted.

Dillard said he believes medical malpractice may be addressed in the fall if Republicans defeat Democrats in a couple of key state house races and if Judge Lloyd Karmeier defeats Appellate Judge Gordon Maag of Madison County for a seat on the state supreme court. Maag has the strong backing of the state’s trial lawyers. Karmeier is supported by critics of the current state of Illinois’ judicial system, who say Madison County is one of the worst jurisdictions in the country.

“These races will be bellwethers of whether we will act on a reform package in the fall,” Dillard said.

Steve Stanek ([email protected]) is an Illinois-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Health Care News.