Malpractice costs threaten your health

August 22, 2004|by Michael Saylor

Last winter more than 3,000 Maryland physicians traveled to Annapolis to try to impress upon the Maryland General Assembly the need to enact malpractice reform.

Gov. Robert Ehrlich proposed a relatively weak package of reforms that never had a chance of passage because Senate President Mike Miller, who coincidentally is a malpractice attorney, bottled the bill up in committee and it was never even brought to a vote by the entire senate.

Talk about letting the fox run the henhouse - a malpractice attorney deciding whether or not Maryland should be able to reform its medical malpractice system. The bills never had a chance.

Medical Mutual, the malpractice insurance company that represents the vast majority of physicians in Maryland, has filed for an increase in rates that average 41 percent. Some doctors are in line for increases as high as 175 percent. Last year's increase was 21 percent.


These increases in premiums are being proposed in order to cover malpractice judgments that increase in number and size every year. The system is spiraling toward bankruptcy.

Pennsylvania has already lost several thousand physicians over the last few years because of exploding malpractice insurance costs and now Maryland is on the verge of following in its footsteps. When doctors leave the state, they aren't there to take care of you and your family members. Who's going to deliver your babies when all of the obstetricians limit their practice to gynecology because they can't afford to pay the malpractice premiums? Who's going to care for the auto accident victim when the trauma surgeon moves to California or Texas, where reasonable malpractice reforms have been enacted?

I am an ear, nose and throat physician, and I have practiced in Hagerstown for 15 years. I have, thank goodness, had no malpractice judgments against me in those 15 years. This year I paid $21,000 in malpractice premiums. If my rates go up the average 41 percent, I will pay just under $30,000.

There are five doctors in my practice and, therefore, we will pay $150,000 next year to protect ourselves from malpractice. None of us have ever had a judgment against us. Just think about the extra equipment that we could buy to take care of our patients if we didn't have that $150,000 bill hanging over our heads.

Think about all of the extra tests that doctors have to order just to be absolutely sure that we didn't miss something that our training and judgment told us was very unlikely to be present.

But if there was that one-in-a-thousand chance of a tumor being present and if the patient was just unlucky enough to draw the bad card and had a tumor that we didn't test for, we're accused of committing malpractice. So we order the test, the insurance company pays the bill, you pay the deductible and co-payment, the cost of your health insurance goes up and finally, your employer decides he can't afford to pay for your health insurance anymore or he'll go bankrupt.

What goes around comes around. Don't even begin to think that the malpractice crisis has no effect on you and your family.

The proposed malpractice rate hike has caused morale amongst the physicians of Washington County to plummet to an all-time low. A number of them are talking about premature retirement or limiting the scope of their practices. Access to medical care in this community is truly in jeopardy. What are you going to do when your doctors aren't here anymore?

What can you do to help? Call your legislators (the Washington County delegation members have, in general, been supportive to the cause of malpractice reform). Call Ehrlich's office and tell him that you demand malpractice reform so that your doctors can stay in Maryland. Become further educated about the looming malpractice crisis by going to the Web site

Michael J. Saylor is a Hagerstown physician.

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