Over the last two years, one of the issues conservatives have pushed the hardest at the state level (and Democrats have gone along) is "tort reform" -- rolling back the legal penalties and options available to consumers who are hurt by negligence.

Medical malpractice awards are one of the favorite whipping boys of the corporate interests, and tightened caps on awards to patients for non-economic damages have been enacted in many states. One of the selling points -- and the way the "tort reform" lobby has gotten doctors on board -- has been by promising that capping malpractice awards will lower insurance rates for doctors.

But an in-depth story by Greg Bluestein of the Associated Press looks at Georgia's experience with capping medical malpractice, and finds doctors aren't better off -- in fact, their insurance rates are getting worse:

Despite promises that rising medical malpractice insurance rates would be suppressed under new state laws, many of Georgia's insurers have hiked their premiums since the sweeping reforms took effect last year, according to an Associated Press analysis of state insurance records.

Six of the state's top insurers of doctors and dentists have increased their liability rates -- in some cases, by more than a third -- since new restrictions on malpractice cases became law in February 2005, according to state Department of Insurance records obtained by the AP through an open records request.

The reforms passed by the Georgia Legislature last year included a $350,000 limit on jury awards for malpractice victims' pain and suffering, tougher standards for expert witnesses in malpractice trials, and new incentives for patients to settle out of court.

Doctors and hospitals contended the measures, dubbed "civil justice reform," would curb malpractice insurance rates and help lure more doctors to Georgia. Business lobbies, too, threw their weight behind the legislation because it encourages speedy out-of-court settlements and penalizes parties who make frivolous claims.

But trial lawyers and patient advocacy groups argued that limiting damage awards puts an arbitrary price on a victim's life, and that the state's medical insurers have fostered a false crisis by driving up premiums in a market with little competition.

"Our worst fears have come true," said Allie Wall, the director of consumer group Georgia Watch, which vigorously opposed the new laws. "More than a year has gone by, yet Georgia doctors have not saved a penny on their insurance, as promised, and the insurance companies still raking in record profits."