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10th Anniversary of Landmark Legal Reforms

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By Roberto Hugo Gonzalez

            September 9, 2013 — Dr. Carlos Cardenas, interim Chief Executive Officer (CEO) who spoke first at the podium celebrating this important day said. “An important day in Texas history was made about ten years ago that improved the access to care in the Rio Grande Valley and the state of Texas.”

            Cardenas was referring to the signing of the medical liability reforms into law by Gov. Rick Perry. An early 2003 survey showed that the lawsuit epidemic had significantly increased sick and injured Texans’ ability to get the healthcare they needed.

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            Dr. Cardenas also said, “Prior to signing the legislation into law, the liability crisis in south Texas and the rest of the state was at fiver pitch. We’ve had come to a time in our area when we basically had next to none in neurosurgical coverage for an area that serves almost a million people.”

            He pointed out that if you were a parent and your child fell off the skateboard prior to the passage of reform, the opportunity for your child to be treated by a neurosurgeon locally was next to zero. With these kinds of problems in the spring of 2002 the Hidalgo Starr County Medical Society joined by members from El Paso and Wichita Falls marched in front of the Court House and asked for redresses, that redress came in the form of liability reform that was championed by Governor Rick Perry.

            In June of 2003 the Wall Street Journal published an editorial “Ten Gallon Tort Reform”, announcing to the business world that Texas’ 78th Legislature Regular Session had passed and Governor Perry had signed landmark lawsuit reforms.

            The Editorial published ten years ago described the Texas situation before the passage of the “Ten Gallon Tort Reform”. The tipping point was during the spring of 2002 when 1000 doctors and nurses marched in front of the courthouse in Edinburg, Texas.

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            “It was a plea for survival and an alarm that the Rio Grande Valley was engulfed in an access to care crisis. Gov. Perry then declared that if reelected he would make medical reform his priority and an emergency issue in the Texas Legislature. The result is with us today, for ten years Gov. Perry has been the back stop protecting our reforms,” Dr. Cardenas said.

It was Febe Zepeda who introduced Gov. Rick Perry to this important celebration day.  Febe is known for her extensive work with the Rio Grande Valley Partnership and now as the Executive Director of Rio Grande Valley Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse (RGVCALA).

“I would like to thank all of you for being here today as we celebrate the 10th anniversary of landmark legal reforms in Texas and honor leaders such as Senator Eddie Lucio, Jr., Senator Juan ‘Chuy’ Hinojosa and especially our steadfast champion, Governor Rick Perry — for supporting real reform that has been great for the Rio Grande Valley and for Texas,” she said.

It was also said that it was fitting to celebrate this important anniversary in the Rio Grande Valley… where the push for common-sense legal reform began. The majority of the people attending this event were physicians who remember those days because, here in the Valley, the medical community suffered mightily the cost and consequences of lawsuit abuse.

Febe pointed out the excessive awards; abusive lawsuits and uneven rulings from the courts were bad for healthcare in Texas.  Because of this, the situation forced some doctors to shut their doors completely, others to limit the scope of their practices and many to leave the Lone Star State altogether.

The sad part of all of these for patients meant that Texas had pockets where you couldn’t find needed care and doctors were limiting their practices, cutting out high-risk specialties due to excessive litigation.

Febe said that this situation left some women traveling across counties to find a doctor who would deliver their babies and meant that someone with a head trauma in Austin had to be transported to San Antonio because the Austin ER didn’t have a neurosurgeon on call. “That is not good medicine and it’s not good health care,” Febe said.

Shea also said that the unpredictable system affected physicians and hospitals but it also impacted employers – who were afraid to move to Texas – and particularly afraid of coming to the Valley – because they were afraid of being sued in a Texas court.

Febe brought back memories of how the Valley was called and she said, “While we bore the brunt of this stigma, the situation wasn’t much better in the rest of the state. As you all recall, Texas was widely regarded as the “courthouse to the world” and the “wild west of lawsuit abuse.”

Physicians and businessmen knew that something had to be done to make a real change and in 1990, with the birth of the Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse (CALA), a grassroots movement right here in the Valley, and the hard work of many people who are in the room, the climate began to change.

“People began to understand that we all suffer when lawsuit abuse is allowed to fester. Fortunately, after nearly two decades of significant legislative enactments that have introduced predictability and common sense to the process, our civil justice system is now considered a model of reform,’ Febe said.

These changes have helped create and retain jobs, allowed small employers to flourish, and improved access to health care, especially in under-served areas.

Reforms have worked in Texas and have become a significant pillar in the economic foundation that makes Texas stronger than other states.

“The Rio Grande Valley Partnership and RGV Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse (RGVCALA) is very proud to be part of this event today and thank each and every one of you for your support of common-sense legal reform,” she finalized.

Governor Rick Perry said, “Today it is an important day as we mark a milestone, and mark this very important day in Texas, the day when we made the commitment to change our system for the better. It was ten years ago when doctors were faced with awful choices; stop providing the critical services their patients desperately needed, and shut down their medical practices all together, and leaving the state.”

            Gov. Perry also said that in those days, the situation represented a crisis precipitated by a system that fostered a stream of lawsuits, particularly in the Rio Grande Valley.

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