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A Decade On, Debate Over Tort Reform Still Heated

Gov. Rick Perry on Monday celebrated the 10th anniversary of legislation limiting medical liability in Texas. But a debate is still raging over whether the law has benefited Texas as much as Perry and conservatives claim.

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After 10 years, the sides that fought for and against tort reform in Texas are still fighting. Now it’s about whether the legislation that limits how much someone can sue for nonmedical damages has made Texas a better place for doctors and patients.

On the pro side, Gov. Rick Perry said Monday at an event in Edinburg that Texas has added more than 30,000 doctors since tort reform was passed in 2003 — a stat that the governor has used frequently.

And a stat that's been scrutinized just as frequently.

“There is no academic study or meaningful research that shows that’s a trend," said Alex Winslow of Texas Watch, a consumer advocacy group. "In fact, all of the academic research shows the opposite, that Texas continues to have a hard time attracting high-quality physicians. And that immunity for doctors is not a reason for physicians to come to this state."

The Austin American Statesman’s political fact-checking bureau, PolitiFact, labeled the Perry's claim “false” in 2011 when Perry used it during his presidential run.

An academic study released in August by the University of Illinois College of Law said that tort reform has dramatically reduced the number of malpractice lawsuits in Texas but that “there is no evidence that tort reform materially affected the supply of Direct Patient-Care physicians, primary care physicians, high-risk specialists, or physicians practicing in rural areas.”

Dr. Stephen Brotherton, president of the Texas Medical Association, which in 2003 supported efforts to limit malpractice suits, disagrees with stats disparaging the law.

“That really doesn’t fit with the data we’re seeing," Brotherton said. "For instance, we’re seeing the number of doctors in rural counties increase at three times the rate of the population increase in rural counties."

A survey released this week by the medical association shows that the increase in the number of physicians in Texas has outpaced the state’s population growth since 2007 — with specific emphasis on new doctors coming to the Texas-Mexico border.

“Either in the Valley or in rural Texas, that’s where we’ve added doctors," Brotherton said. "Sometimes there were whole counties without an obstetrician where we’ve added somebody. And the other big problem we had in the Valley was [none] of the high-risk specialists, particularly pediatric sub-specialists, neurosurgeons."

Winslow counters that ties between new doctors and tort reform are weak at best, and that Texas being one of the country’s fastest-growing states, with one of the nation’s strongest economies, might have more to do with any physician migration.

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