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Doctors rally for malpractice insurance reform

January 22, 2004|by LAURA ERNDE

laurae@herald-mail.com

About 100 Washington County doctors joined their colleagues from around the state Wednesday at a rally seeking malpractice insurance reforms.

Skyrocketing insurance rates threaten to force them out of business or into early retirement, doctors said.

By limiting damage awards in lawsuits, doctors said, they want to prevent the kind of crisis that recently hit West Virginia and Pennsylvania.

Statewide, malpractice insurance rates went up 40 percent this year, said Dr. John G. Newby, president of the Washington County Medical Society.

Specialized doctors such as surgeons and obstetricians have been hit hardest by the increases, he said.

Private practices are being squeezed because they have no way to increase their revenues and insurance companies pay them a fixed amount for their services, doctors said.

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"The bottom line is getting lower and lower," said Dr. Sam Chan, a Hagerstown internist who runs a private practice.

Chan said he puts in 12-hour days and works on the weekend to keep his income from dropping.

The increases also hurt those at larger practices such as Dr. Ruth Dwyer, who at age 37 is still paying off student loans.

"If we were blue-collar workers this would not be an issue," she said.

Newby said doctors are seeking a four-prong plan of reforms. They are:

- Reduce the cap on noneconomic damages to $350,000.

- Change the way damages are calculated to better reflect actual costs.

- Reduce the fees for attorneys, who doctors claim receive 40 percent of lawsuit awards.

- Allow awards to be paid out over a number of years instead of in a lump sum.

Washington County doctors arrived at the rally in two buses. They were part of a 2,000 member crowd in Lawyer's Mall in front of the State House.

Some doctors wore white lab coats over parkas on the frosty morning.

Gov. Robert Ehrlich showed his support for the doctors at the rally by promising to introduce reform legislation, although the details are likely to differ from the doctors' demands.

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