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Measure 35: Yes

It's not a magic bullet, but it's a step, and the facts favor the supporters

Ballot Measure 35, which would cap pain and suffering awards in medical malpractice lawsuits at &

36;500,000, has generated the most expensive campaign of any measure on the Nov. 2 ballot ' and reams of statistics, hotly disputed by both sides of the debate. On balance, we side with the supporters, and we recommend a yes vote.

We do so not because Measure 35 will fix everything that is wrong with our health care system. It won't. We do so not because we are convinced that the malpractice insurance premiums doctors pay will instantly plummet to easily affordable levels. They probably won't, but over time it's likely that they will.

And something clearly needs to be done, especially in Southern Oregon, where skyrocketing insurance premiums already are causing doctors in crucial high-risk specialties such as neurosurgery and obstetrics to leave or to limit their practices.

Doctors, who overwhelmingly support the measure, point out that rates were affordable when Oregon had a pain-and-suffering cap in place. After the state Supreme Court ruled the cap unconstitutional in 1999, rates soared, doubling and tripling in just a few years for some specialties. At the same time, the average medical liability award rose 65 percent.

That's hard to argue with.

Opponents say rates climbed not because the cap was lifted but because insurance companies were trying to recoup losses in the stock market. That's a hard argument to make in Oregon, where insurance rates are regulated and the state has the power to deny increases it considers excessive.

— Since the cap was overturned, the number of companies writing malpractice insurance in Oregon has shrunk from 15 to two, and one of them is a physician-owned firm dedicated to insuring Oregon doctors.

Opponents also point to an emergency measure implemented by the state that helps doctors in rural areas pay their insurance premiums. That's a worthwhile program, and it has helped some, though by no means all, rural doctors to continue practicing.

But it does nothing for doctors in Medford, which is too big to qualify as rural.

Measure 35 is carefully written to apply only to medical malpractice lawsuits. It would not limit damages in any other kind of liability suit. It would limit only damages for pain and suffering ' the intangible, non-economic losses that are hard to quantify. Economic damages ' hospital bills, the cost of long-term care, lost income ' would be unaffected.

What the measure would give insurance companies is predictable claims over time. Without a cap on pain and suffering awards, there is no limit to what plaintiffs can demand, and therefore no way for insurance companies to predict how much they might have to pay. That leads to premiums so high that doctors cannot afford to continue practicing high-risk specialties.

Measure 35 is not a magic bullet. It likely won't lower the cost of medical care to patients, and it certainly won't solve all the problems with our health care system.

But it's a step in the right direction, and it should help keep critical specialty care available to patients in Southern Oregon. We recommend a yes vote on Measure 35.