By Joey Berlin
About 15 years ago, James Duerr saw something in Nueces County he never wanted to see again: A doctor desert. It’s what pushed him into grassroots advocacy work with the Texas Medical Association’s volunteer arm, the TMA Alliance (TMAA).
Before the historic tort reforms of 2003, Mr. Duerr and his wife, emergency physician Pamela Hall, MD, got an up-close view of an unsustainable situation while living in Corpus Christi. As was the case elsewhere in Texas, frivolous lawsuits were driving physicians out of Nueces County or into early retirement, and the community was feeling the ripple effects. Mr. Duerr describes the Nueces County of that era with the most common and damning epithet for places that become centers for frivolous litigation: a judicial hellhole.
“It was getting to be a bad place to raise a family, because you [had] a shortage of neurosurgeons and obstetrics,” he said. “We were very worried about the shortage of doctors. We got involved in the fight for tort reform in 2003. That gave me a lot of experience in grass roots, getting the word out.” Through the Nueces County Medical Society Alliance, Mr. Duerr became part of a local volunteer force of physicians and their spouses who worked to reverse the physician exodus in the Lone Star State. He and Dr. Hall now live part-time in San Antonio, where he’s active in the Bexar County Medical Society Alliance, one of 28 county medical alliances that collectively make up the 4,000-member TMA Alliance. County medical alliance members are automatically members of TMAA. If they live in an area with no local medical alliance, they can join TMAA directly. Mr. Duerr, who works for New York Life Insurance, wasn’t an active alliance member prior to the tort reform push. He just wanted to serve as moral support for Dr. Hall and the rest of the physician community. But his part in pushing for the reforms — which included a crucial $250,000 cap on noneconomic damages — made him a permanent part of promedicine advocacy.
Mr. Duerr brings the same intensity to his activism that you might expect from a physician: He fears many doctors practicing today don’t know the history of tort reform and aren’t as likely to become active in advocacy as those who “saw the attack on their profession.”
He sees his role as critical in spurring physicians to get involved and attend First Tuesdays at the Capitol, MA’s monthly advocacy event in Austin during each legislative session. (Mark your calendars for the First Tuesdays of 2019: Feb. 5, March 5, April 2, and May 7. See more details at www.texmed.org/FirstTuesdays.) Doctors’ “mission in life is to take care of their patients. It became very personal for physicians, and a lot of them couldn’t bear the financial strain of the increases in medical malpractice and people going after them personally,” Mr. Duerr said. “We really dodged a bullet back then, and that’s one reason we stay actively involved in the … alliance and First Tuesdays. Because we don’t want to go back to those days, ever.”
In addition to legislative advocacy and political campaigns, TMAA members raise funds for research, grants, and scholarships; volunteer in local and state-sponsored projects; and engage in TMA public health initiatives, such as Hard Hats For Little Heads and Be Wise – ImmunizeSM.
Mr. Duerr — like his wife, a graduate of Texas A&M University — says the TMA Alliance’s work to promote immunizations is one of its most important present-day projects, and is a key reason to join. It’s also beneficial for physician spouses to have a network to support each other, as well as the doctors with whom they share their lives. That support system, all by itself, makes the alliance worth joining, he says.
Read about the 100th anniversary of the TMA Alliance in the January issue of Texas Medicine. For information on joining the TMA Alliance, visit www.texmed.org/alliance/, call (800) 880-1300, or email Judy Julian at email@example.com.