Legislative Column for the Week of March 12, 2015

Sen. Schatz introduces students from St. Francis Borgia Regional High School.

JEFFERSON CITY — Last week, I wrote about activities outside of the Capitol, including our visit to Ft. Leonard Wood and Auditor Schweich’s funeral. On Thursday of last week, I did have the opportunity to pass my first bill out of the Senate and on to the House. Senate Bill 221 has been mentioned in this column before, and it simply allows the city of Eureka to annex some adjacent ground lying between Eureka and the St. Louis County border. This bill was labelled “consent,” meaning it was uncontroversial and could not be amended. This week the Senate was back to a normal, but busy, schedule as session lasted past midnight on Tuesday.

Legislators spent the bulk of this week debating an on-going goal of the General Assembly—tort reform. The issue is part of the overall effort to improve our state’s legal climate, a key part of promoting economic growth.

Nearly 10 years ago, Missouri lawmakers passed tort reform legislation that set our state on the path toward a more sensible legal and business-friendly climate.  The measure lowered the cap on non-economic damages, such as pain and suffering, from $579,000 to $350,000. The 2005 legislation did exactly what it was designed to do: the number of lawsuits decreased, medical malpractice insurance rates leveled out and stabilized, doctors stayed in Missouri, and victims still received compensation for damages.

Then, a few years ago, the Missouri Supreme Court ruled in Watts v. Cox Medical Centers that the state’s cap on jury awards for non-economic damages in medical malpractice cases was unconstitutional, effectively removing the limit. The decision put us back at square one, and we’re now seeing more of the same frivolous lawsuits that spurred the Legislature to pass the 2005 law. 

This week, the Senate examined a measure that would add much-needed reform to the way lawsuits are settled in this state. Senate Bill 339 would reinstate caps on noneconomic damages in medical malpractice cases, $400,000 for personal injury, and no more than $700,000 for a catastrophic personal injury. Right now, doctors are required to carry $500,000 in medical malpractice insurance. By lowering the cap for personal injury to $400,000, we can ensure physicians are adequately covered.

This issue is really about fairness. The Legislature has to play the umpire in situations like this and ensure that both consumers and providers have a fair shake in the court system. Citizens must have the ability to bring suit for damages, but doctors and employers also need to have some level of cost certainty in order to conduct business and move our economy forward. I am in favor of reinstituting reasonable caps to prevent frivolous lawsuits and protect doctors and employers, while also ensuring the rights of citizens.

Additionally, the Senate perfected Senate Bill 224, which requires a student to be a U.S. citizen in order to be eligible and receive scholarships from the A+ Scholarship Program. The cost of higher education has never cost more, but the need for post-secondary education has also never been greater. To help dedicated students defray the costs of college, we created the A+ Scholarship Program, which provides funds for students to attend participating community colleges or vocational and technical schools, as long as they meet academic guidelines. The students who qualify for A+ assistance devote a lot of time and energy in securing that financial help.

The program has been incredibly successfully, but has also faced funding issues due to its popularity and high demand. It’s important that we keep this program sustainable. One of the ways to do that is by ensuring only Missouri students who are here legally be allowed to access these funds. The legislation is not about denying access to higher education for some, but about protecting it for those who followed the rules by being legal residents of the U.S.

Thank you for reading this weekly column. Please contact my office at (573) 751-3678 if you have any questions.