Reaction Mixed to Idea of Special Session in Wyoming

By Sarah Cooke | June 1, 2004

Calling a special session to deal with rising medical malpractice insurance rates could be risky if nothing comes out of it, those involved in the debate said May 28.

Legislative leaders opted to vote on whether to reconvene in Cheyenne about the issue this summer, with results expected in the near future.

If approved, it would be the first time the Legislature has used its new authority to call itself into special session. A special session is expected to cost between $22,000 and $25,000 a day.

Some of those involved in the tort reform debate expressed concerns over spending that much money and not getting results.

“My initial thought is that a special session isn’t something that is necessary,” said Rhonda Woodard, a Cheyenne attorney and member of the Wyoming Trial Lawyers Association. “My feeling is that the Legislature already looked at all these issues very strongly during the regular session.

“It seems to me what needs be done is people need to be looking at the issue of insurance and what is truly driving up insurance costs.”

The Legislature earlier this year voted down several proposals for tackling rising medical malpractice insurance rates, including a constitutional amendment backed by Gov. Dave Freudenthal that would have allowed lawmakers and voters to consider limiting jury malpractice awards for non-economic damages, such as pain and suffering. The state constitution currently prohibits limiting lawsuit awards.

Since then, however, some say the situation has gotten a lot worse.

OHIC Insurance Co., the state’s largest malpractice insurance provider, in March announced it was pulling out of Wyoming later this year, leaving 381 doctors and seven hospitals scrambling to find alternate insurance carriers.

OHIC has not yet found another insurer to buy its Wyoming business either.

And earlier this month, rates for the state’s other major malpractice provider, The Doctors Co., jumped nearly 12 percent.

Susie Wacker, spokeswoman for the Wyoming Medical Society, said the uncertainty surrounding Wyoming’s medical malpractice insurance has only made more doctors leave the state.

At least 50 have left or retired in the past year, she said.

“I think (a special session) will be a positive step because patient access to care is being threatened and we need to take concerted steps to make sure our rural health care system doesn’t collapse,” Wacker said.

“I think people may be coming in with greater sense of urgency,” she said of state lawmakers.

Woodard and other trial lawyers, however, contend that if high insurance rates are the problem, then lawmakers should be exploring insurance alternatives rather than caps on noneconomic damages to remedy the situation.

“My concern is that I don’t think people have really had enough time to really look at what is driving the cost of insurance up, and so I have concerns that in a special session the issues that really need to be looked at aren’t going to be addressed,” Woodard said.

Lara Azar, Freudenthal’s press secretary, said the governor has no objection to a special session as long as there are results.

In January, however, Freudenthal said he would rather wait and see how the private insurance sector reacts to the departure of OHIC before calling a special session.

“The key here is there is no point in calling a special session unless you have absolutely confirmed there is no private sector response forthcoming,” the governor said during a speech in Gillette.

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