The Delta Democrat Times Newspaper
Greenville, Mississippi
January 4, 2005

Physician discusses flip side of tort reform

By Woodrow Wilson
woodrowwilkins@ddtonline.com


LOCAL NEWS

Before Mississippi lawmakers agreed to limit jury awards in medical malpractice lawsuits, the cost of liability insurance or its lack of availability led some physicians to flee the state or retire, leaving their patients without convenient access to health care.

Now that tort reform is law, the picture for some hasn't changed. "I know I will never be pain-free. I know that," Virginia Brooks, 45, said on Monday. Among her ailments are arthritis, spina bifida and bulging discs. "If they can reduce the pain to a level I can work with, I'd rather be working than looking at four walls."

Robert Armstrong is also an arthritis sufferer. Both are from Greenville. Both are or were patients of Dr. Ronald Myers, who closed all four of his Delta clinics on Saturday, when his malpractice insurance expired. Armstrong said he began seeing Myers seven or eight years ago after his son showed him an ad that said Myers was giving free treatment to people 55 and older who had high blood pressure.

"I could not really afford it, so I went to him as long as that program lasted," Armstrong said. "He is a good doctor. He will come to your house. If you don't have money, he will still take care of you."

It's that bedside manner that has brought Myers much media attention in his 17 years of serving the Delta. Local and national news stories have told of his efforts to provide health care to people who can least afford it and, in some cases, cannot travel.

And on Wednesday, Myers' insurance trouble will be the subject of a segment on ABC Television's "Good Morning America," which airs locally from 7 to 9 a.m. Mississippi native Robin Roberts, a former ESPN anchor who is part of the "Good Morning America's" team, was in Greenville last week to interview the doctor. The interview took place at the Ramada Inn, where Myers, who is also a jazz musician, performs on Sunday afternoons.

The segment was originally scheduled to air on Monday, but ABC's coverage of tsunami relief efforts in Asia bumped the story. Calling it the downside of tort reform, Myers said he was forced to close clinics in Greenville, Indianola, Belzoni and the small Holmes County community of Tchula. Holmes County is one of five Mississippi counties that were identified by the Washington, D.C.-based American Tort Reform Association as "judicial hellholes," calling them havens for high jury verdicts. The organization has dropped Mississippi from its list. In its annual survey, released last month, the association touted Mississippi as a model for the rest of the nation in civil justice reform.

In June, Gov. Haley Barbour signed a new lawsuit limitations bill, which became law on Sept. 1. Among other things, the new law caps pain-and-suffering damage awards at $1 million in most lawsuits. It keeps the $500,000 pain-and-suffering cap adopted in 2002 for medical malpractice cases but it erases a cost-of-living provision that would have increased the $500,000 cap over the years.

The legislation was designed to prevent the flight of medical malpractice insurers from Mississippi and keep doctors in business. However, the company that covered Myers considered him a high risk and refused to renew his policy, the doctor said. He has filed a lawsuit to get reinstated.

Myers filed his complaint in Holmes County Chancery Court, alleging that the board of the not-for-profit Medical Assurance Co. in Ridgeland "has made it clear that they do not want me to treat poor chronic-care patients" and has wrongly denied coverage to other black physicians practicing in poor, primarily black communities. Myers, a minister and missionary, said he has never had any malpractice claims filed against him.

Michael Houpt, chief executive officer at Medical Assurance, said race is never used as a basis for coverage decisions and was not in Myers' case. "We don't ask (race) on our applications because it isn't relevant," he said.

Interestingly, the "Good Morning America" segment is to air shortly before President Bush addresses national tort reform. According to a story in Sunday's St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Bush will visit Collinsville, Ill., to deliver a speech on medical malpractice reform. A few miles across the Mississippi River from St. Louis, Collinsville is in Madison County, Ill., which, for the second year in a row was named the Tort Reform Association's No. 1 "judicial hellhole." Bush made his support for caps on jury awards a major theme of his campaign for re-election, saying lawsuit abuse threatened to put many good doctors out of business.

The irony and timing were not lost on Jamie Court, president of the California-based Foundation for Taxpayer & Consumer Rights. "Dr. Myers will go head to head with President Bush, whether he meant to or not," Court said. "They'll present two very different versions of tort reform."

Court said Bush has gotten so much in campaign contributions from the insurance industry that he doesn't want to reform insurance companies.

"The key ingredients: He (Myers) is taking on an insurance company, being denied coverage in this bogus myth of judicial hellholes, while Bush is gonna argue that tort reform is what will keep clinics open. "He should spend a day in the life of Dr. Myers," Court said.

Tort reform is a two-edged scalpel that will cut patients both ways, Court said. "It limits access to court, and it makes it easier for insurance companies to deny health care coverage," he said.

Meanwhile, Armstrong and Brooks are at a loss. "Without him, I'd be in trouble," Armstrong said of Myers. "I don't know what I'm going to do."

In addition to treatment, Myers made sure Armstrong got the medicine he needed. Now, Armstrong said he will take Tylenol. "But Tylenol won't do much for arthritis pain. And it's bad. "Mine is real bad."

Brooks said her pain goes beyond the physical. Because of it, she cannot play with her 20-month-old granddaughter or take the child for a walk in the park. "This hurts my heart, to say: "Grandma don't feel good today, baby," Brooks said. "That hurts me real bad."

Woodrow Wilkins Jr. can be reached at (662) 378-0713, or e-mail woodrowwilkins@ddtonline.com.

On the Net:

The Foundation for Taxpayer & Consumer Rights: http://www.consumerwatchdog.org/

The Associate Press and the Web site, modernhealthcare.com, contributed to this story.

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