Fallin gets health-sector lift

BY CURTIS KILLMAN World Staff Writer & ZIVA BRANSTETTER World Enterprise Editor
Monday, August 26, 2013
8/26/13 at 3:09 AM

Doctors, dentists and others who would benefit from tort reform legislation to be considered in an upcoming special session have poured more than $700,000 into Gov. Mary Fallin's campaign coffers, a Tulsa World analysis shows.

The contributions from the health industry accounted for one out of every seven dollars given to Fallin's campaigns for governor, a World analysis of Ethics Commission data reflects. The individuals, businesses and political action committees from the health sector have contributed about $741,000 to Fallin's 2010 and 2014 candidate committees.

The majority of contributions came from individual doctors and other medical professionals while PACs and businesses contributed $92,000.

Medical providers are a chief segment of those who stand to benefit from any tort reform legislation that will be under consideration when the Legislature meets in special session. The session is to begin Sept. 3 and will cost taxpayers about $30,000 a day.

In two rulings in June, the state Supreme Court struck down the package of laws passed in 2009, saying they were unconstitutional because the bill contained more than one subject. The court also said one of the laws created a financial burden limiting access to the courts and applied to only one class or group.

Earlier this month, Fallin called a special session to restore the laws, saying lawmakers could not wait until the regular legislative session begins in February. Fallin said other issues, including the fate of a state health insurance program for the poor, would not be considered.

"Oklahoma's lawsuit reform measures are part of what makes this state attractive to businesses and allows us to retain and recruit doctors. ... As lawmakers, we need to act now to protect our businesses and our medical community from frivolous lawsuits and skyrocketing legal costs," Fallin said in news release announcing the special session.

In an email, Fallin's spokesman, Alex Weintz, said the donations play no role in Fallin's policy decisions. "Campaign contributions do not drive or influence public policy in this administration, period. However, it makes perfect sense for doctors and businesses that are concerned about lawsuit reform to contribute to Governor Fallin's campaign, as she has been outspoken about where she stands on this issue."

The overturned tort reform laws contained protections for drug companies, hospitals, doctors, dentists, nursing home owners and other medical providers. They included limits on what evidence can be used in suits against health providers, exemptions from some kinds of suits and outside review of legal fees in class action suits.

At least a dozen negligence lawsuits have been reopened that were thrown out by judges due to a requirement in the 2009 laws. The law required plaintiffs to obtain an affidavit from a qualified expert stating the suit had merit or cause before filing suit.

Attorneys who specialize in such lawsuits say the requirement isn't necessary and forces them to prove their case before it's even heard.

Donald Smolen II, a Tulsa attorney who filed three of the reopened suits, said negligence suits cost between $50,000 and $100,000 up front, generally paid by the law firm filing the suit. Attorneys aren't likely to pursue cases without merit because they lose any money spent pursuing the case, he said.

Smolen said the certificate requirement "is nothing more than a way to slow down the process."

"There's only one interest being served and that's the state Chamber and the state medical association," he said.

House Bill 1603, the 228-page bill containing the tort reform laws, was sponsored in the Senate by then-Sen. Glenn Coffee. After leaving as Senate president, Coffee became Fallin's secretary of state and is now general counsel for the state Chamber of Commerce.

The Oklahoma State Medical Association uses the Supreme Court's rulings as a call for donations to its political action committee, OMPAC. The PAC gave the maximum to Fallin's campaign funds, a total of $10,000, the World's analysis shows.

"We will have an opportunity to work with legislative leaders and Governor Fallin to remedy the situation and re-codify the language that is good for physicians in a way that (we hope) will pass Supreme Court muster," the association's website states.

Jack Beller, a physician and board chairman of Physicians Liability Insurance Co., said the medical association supports "those lawmakers who agree with our positions on the issues that matter to us."

Beller said the cost of liability insurance can discourage doctors from locating in the state, which needs them in rural areas.

Joe Griffin, a spokesman for House Speaker T.W. Shannon, said he could not provide details about what legislation will be considered in the special session. He said about 26 to 28 bills are expected to be brought to the floor.

Former Gov. Brad Henry, the Democratic governor who signed the tort reform bill, received considerably less campaign funding from the health sector, records show. Henry received about $207,000 from health industry individuals, businesses and PACs during his 2006 campaign, or about 10 percent of his total raised.

Fallin has raised about $175,000 from health industry interests for her 2014 campaign, or about 16 percent of her total.

The list of health professionals donating to Fallin's campaigns includes spine surgeons, dentists and chiropractors. Many gave $5,000, the maximum under state law that can be donated to any one campaign by individuals and PACs.

Anesthesiologists are among the more frequent contributors to campaigns.

The Affiliated Anesthesiologists PAC and the Oklahoma Society of Anesthesiologists PAC, two committees with the same Edmond post office box address, each donated the maximum $5,000 to Fallin's 2014 campaigns.

Oklahoma Society of Anesthesiologists PAC and another anesthesiologist PAC based in Tulsa gave $5,000 to Fallin's campaigns.

Jay Cunningham, past-president of the Oklahoma Society of Anesthesiologists, said tort reform is one of the issues the medical specialty cares about. Patient safety is a top concern, he said.

Shannon and Sen. Pro Tem Brian Bingman have also received campaign funds from those in the health industry, the World's analysis shows.

About one in 10 dollars given to Shannon came from those in the health sector. About 9 percent of funds given to Bingman came from the health sector, records show.

Health industry contributions to Fallin campaigns

Type Amount
Individuals $650,000
PACs $81,000
Businesses $11,000

Source: Tulsa World analysis of Ethics Commission records for Gov. Mary Fallin's 2010 and 2014 campaigns.

Curtis Killman 918-581-8471

Ziva Branstetter 918-581-8306

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