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Prescription for a poison pill

Just a couple of years ago, lawmakers turned "Give us tort reform!" into a national battle cry that became the civil equivalent of "Remember Pearl Harbor!" Something must be done - and right now, our elected leaders shouted. Malpractice lawsuits and runaway insurance costs will surely destroy our health care system, they shrieked.

Gov. Sonny Perdue and the Georgia Legislature almost trampled each other to endorse, demand and finally enact "tort reform" - the nation's sternest measure aimed at stopping medical malpractice lawsuits.

Most of us thought it was a great idea. Tort reform would herald a new tomorrow in hospitals and doctors' offices, we were assured. Our elected officials promised that a tough tort law would improve access to health care, lower the cost of practicing medicine and virtually eliminate frivolous lawsuits. Never mind that tort reform lawsuits across the nation were already down by 80 percent over the past 10 years. Knuckleheaded trial lawyers would finally be sent packing.

Guess what? No new day ever came. A year after it became law, Georgia's tort reform law has turned into a nightmare for victims of bad medicine. They have almost no recourse in the courts. Physicians have seen little or no reduction in insurance premiums. Access to health care has not improved. The cost of practicing medicine is higher than before.

A new study by Harvard University and Dartmouth College economists has found that the entire national tort reform effort, including Georgia's, flopped.

No significant relationship exists between increases in medical malpractice payments and medical liability insurance premiums, the report concluded. "We find that when the number or size of malpractice payments rises, there is very little accompanying increase in the malpractice premiums paid by physicians," the researchers discovered.

In other words, the 2005 Georgia law accomplished little more than stripping Georgia families of their legal rights to sue. Allison Wall, executive of the nonprofit citizens' group Georgia Watch, said:

"Across the state, Georgians were promised that passage of Senate Bill 3 would bring a cure to our state's health care ills. What we got is a poison pill that has done nothing to increase access, lower the cost, reduce liability insurance rates or improve the quality of health care. Instead of better health care, we got a managed care system for court access with Georgia taxpayers footing the bill for medical negligence."

Published in the prestigious Cato Institute's Regulation magazine, the Harvard-Dartmouth economists' report "confirms what Georgians already know," Wall said. "The insurance industry and its high-powered lobbyists are using phony statistics with made-up results to push their special-interest protection plan on average Georgia families and Georgia physicians."

Before the general electorate catches on, several legislators are working feverishly behind the scenes to undo much of what the 2005 General Assembly did in the name of tort reform. Georgia courts also have struck down parts of the legislation as unconstitutional.

The over-the-top tort-reform bill is a clear symptom of a serious deficiency in the Georgia Legislature. The assembly is leaderless - unless you count the corporate lobbyists who are calling nearly all the shots.

A handful of important bills and new regulations are likely to follow the same disastrous path as the medical-malpractice legislation:

•The auto insurance lobby is pushing for legislation to allow it to arbitrarily raise premiums before the insurance commissioner reviews its rate-raising applications.

•The Public Service Commission is planning to abolish its consumer-advocate staff, saying it is too costly to maintain experts to examine and rebut rate-reduction applications filed by the state's giant utilities.

•A special bill was introduced to give Public Service Commission member Doug Everett as much as $46,000 a year in expenses so he could commute from his home in Albany. In the understatement of the year, Democrats timidly labeled the measure "a sweetheart bill."

•A bill that severely restricts the use of eminent domain for public improvement is liable to follow the same path as the tort reform law. Because of a lack of sensible leadership and restraint, the bill will likely be overcooked. To be sure, controls on eminent domain are needed. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled last year that eminent domain could be used to condemn property for private development - a decision that caused a national outcry. Still, nuanced reform is needed - and "nuanced reform" is a foreign term in Georgia's ham-fisted, cognitively challenged General Assembly.

You are likely to see similar one-upmanship craziness exhibited in the legislative zeal to drive illegal aliens out of the state. Curbing the tide of undocumented foreigners in our midst may be a noble cause, but it ought to be approached with thoughtfulness. The mob mentality has brought Georgia enough grief over the years. Still, we never seem to learn.

The Georgia Legislature badly needs a new Tom Murphy. (I never thought that I would write such, but the General Assembly is out of control.) Former Speaker Murphy had an unerring feel for extremism and nuttiness. He would never have allowed mindless fanaticism to take hold of the General Assembly.

They say a new day has dawned in Georgia government. Perhaps they are right. Now, however, the sun seems to be coming up on the wrong side of the mountain in the Gold Dome.

Syndicated columnist Bill Shipp writes on Georgia politics. Write him at P.O. Box 440755, Kennesaw, GA 30160, or e-mail bshipp@bellsouth.net. His Web site is www.billshipp.com. His column appears on Wednesday and Sunday.