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updated 5/28/2004 2:22:42 PM ET 2004-05-28T18:22:42

The 2004 Oklahoma Legislature headed for a conclusion Friday with the Senate passing a tort reform bill that doctors hope will reduce malpractice insurance rates.

The bill cleared the Senate 29-17 over Republican objections that the measure did not go far enough in protecting businesses from lawsuits. The bill now heads to Gov. Brad Henry, who said he will sign it.

The 2004 session _ the last for more than 40 House and Senate members under a 1991 term limit law _ has been called the most productive in decades by leaders of the Democratic majority.

Among the legislation enacted since the Legislature convened in February are bills pushed by Gov. Brad Henry that ask voters to approve a tobacco tax increase to fund a major expansion of the state health care program and to allow pari-mutuel horse racing tracks to have the same electronic games that Indian casinos have.

The tobacco bill also includes cuts in capital gains paid by Oklahoma businesses and individual taxpayers and income taxes paid by retirees.

If approved by voters, it will mean health care coverage for an estimated 100,000 Oklahomans, provide seed money to a new cancer research center and shore up funding for the state trauma care system.

Sponsors of the tort reform bill, which was a source of intense negotiations during the final weeks of session, said the bill would help stem rising medical malpractice insurance rates and frivolous lawsuits.

A key component of the bill, requested by the Oklahoma State Medical Association, removes for 18 months the requirement that companies providing medical malpractice insurance keep high levels of reserve and surplus money on hand.

Sen. Mike Morgan, D-Stillwater, said that provision would relieve the financially strapped Physicians Liability Insurance Co. and result in a $10,000 savings for every doctor covered by the company.

"This bill will ensure access to health care for Oklahomans," Morgan said. "That's why the Oklahoma State Medical Association supports this bill."

But Sen. Glenn Coffee, R-Oklahoma City, said most of the tort provisions in the bill were watered down and contained no substantive reform.

"If we want to call this an insurance bail-out bill, that's fine, but don't call it tort reform," Coffee said. "This was a 'do the plaintiff's bar no harm' bill."

All but two Republicans in the Senate opposed the measure on final passage.

Senate Republican leader James Williamson, R-Tulsa, criticized the $300,000 cap on non-economic, or pain and suffering, damages that can be lifted if a judge determines the defendant committed negligence by clear and convincing evidence.

"These are not hard caps. These are miracle caps," Williamson said. "It would take a miracle for these caps ever to apply. There are so many exceptions that apply, these are meaningless.

Henry said the bill, a major step forward for Oklahoma, addresses the biggest concern of small businesses _ frivolous lawsuits.

"This is the most sweeping, comprehensive tort reform package in Oklahoma's history, without question," Henry said.

"Anyone who examines this legislation with an objective eye will agree that it beats Texas in many areas. This improves our civil justice system and makes it more business friendly without restricting citizens' constitutional right to have equal access to the courts."

The measure also eliminates joint and several liability for defendants less than 50 percent at fault, limits liability for doctors who provide volunteer services, provides penalties for filing frivolous lawsuits and adopts an "I'm sorry" law that allows health care providers to express sympathy without fear of liability.

Copyright 2004 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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