(Oklahoma City, Okla.) The legislative session usually runs from February to May, but this year, legislators are returning to the Capitol in the first week of September.
I have asked them to return to work for a “Special Session” to address an issue I think is of high importance to the state, our medical community and our prospects for economic growth and job creation. That issue is lawsuit reform.
First, a brief history lesson: In 2009, Oklahoma was facing a legal climate that many believed was hostile to businesses and encouraged frivolous lawsuits. These lawsuits were particularly damaging to doctors and medical professionals, who were frequent targets of medical malpractice claims. This was becoming a larger and larger problem; the number of medical malpractice payments was almost 10 percent larger in 2009 than the year before.
The results were predictable. Businesses were afraid to invest in a state where they could anticipate spending a large portion of their dollars defending themselves from lawsuits. Oklahoma also lost good doctors to some neighboring states like Texas that had stronger legal protections. The rising cost of medical malpractice lawsuits not only made it harder to attract and retain good doctors, it also contributed to pushing up the overall cost of medical treatment.
To combat this problem, Democratic Governor Brad Henry worked with Republicans and Democrats in the Legislature to pass comprehensive lawsuit reform. The law they passed made it easier for a judge to dismiss lawsuits without merit and made a variety of reforms meant to deliver a fairer system. It allowed those with legitimate grievances to seek compensation through the courts while discouraging frivolous claims.
The reforms worked. Reports from the National Practitioner Data Bank show the number of malpractice payments have declined every year since the law was enacted. And from 2009 to 2011, the number of payments declined by 39%, reaching an all time low.
As a result, small business owners and doctors benefit from greater stability and fairness in our legal system, giving them more confidence to invest and stay in Oklahoma. It’s fair to say these reforms were part of a winning formula that has given us one of the lowest unemployment rates in the nation.
Unfortunately, these reforms are now under attack. Earlier this year, the Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled the reform package unconstitutional, citing the “single subject” rule. Essentially, the court said each provision of the law needs to be passed in a separate bill rather than one large all-encompassing measure.
I disagree with that ruling, but at this time, the best thing to do is follow the court’s lead. To do that, our Legislature must reinstate Oklahoma’s lawsuit reform measures by passing a series of smaller, “single subject” bills that address the court’s concerns.
Passing these bills, which are familiar to lawmakers and have long had bipartisan support, can be done quickly and efficiently. This will minimize the cost of a special session to taxpayers.
Some have suggested that we simply wait until next year to address this issue. If we do that, the likelihood is that lawsuit reform will not be reinstated until August of 2014, perhaps even November. While we wait, we will see a regression of our legal climate and open our doctors and businesses to lawsuits that could drive jobs out of state or drive up the cost of medical care.
I am not willing to wait that long. Lawsuit reform is too important for our economy, our small businesses and our medical community. The time to act is now.
I am looking forward to a quick, productive special session that reinstates the reform measures that have helped to deliver Oklahoma’s healthy economy and protect our reputation as a great state to do business in.