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Some not surprised by planned slowdown

September 25, 2004|by ANDREW SCHOTZ

andrews@herald-mail.com

HAGERSTOWN - In 2001, Medical Mutual Liability Insurance Society of Maryland - which insures most of the state's doctors - paid out $49 million in malpractice claims.

The amount went up to $56 million in 2002, then $93 million last year, and might rise more, Chief Operating Officer Jeff Poole said.

"It's definitely severely draining," he said.

Poole said doctors' premiums went up about 10 percent last year, then 28 percent this year. For next year, the Maryland Insurance Administration has approved a 33 percent increase.

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In a statement, GE Medical Protective Co. of Fort Wayne, Ind., which also insures Maryland physicians, said it "continues to see increases in the severity of the amounts paid and the frequency of claims."

On Thursday, many of Washington County's physicians said the insurance burden is too great for them, so they will stop performing nonemergency procedures, starting Nov. 15. They're pushing for a special General Assembly session on medical malpractice.

For many doctors, another deadline looms: Dec. 1, when their first 2005 Medical Mutual premium payment is due.

The work slowdown wasn't entirely a surprise.

"This has been percolating for a couple of months," said Del. Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington,.

"I think they're trying to draw attention to the issue," said James Hamill, the president and chief executive officer of Washington County Health System, the hospital's parent company.

"This is showing the public what it will be like several years down the road," said Dr. Dino J. Delaportas, Washington County Hospital's chief of staff, an internal medicine and infectious diseases specialist.

About 100 physicians, or half of the medical staff, have decided to join the work slowdown, said Dr. Karl Riggle, the administrative director of the hospital's trauma program and chairman of the Washington County Malpractice Crisis Task Force.

Dr. Gary Papuchis, a cardiologist, said his malpractice insurance rates roughly doubled over his first 11 or so years of practice. Then, the rates rose 50 percent in the next three years and another 50 percent this year, he said.

Riggle, a general surgeon, said his premium went from $33,000 last year to $43,000 this year. He's expecting it to hit $64,000 next year.

Although state Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., a Democrat, said Thursday, "Help is on the way," it's not clear when or in what form.

Henry Fawell, a spokesman for Gov. Robert Ehrlich, said there won't be a session until the issues and their solutions are agreed upon, which hasn't happened.

Last year, the House and Senate considered tort reform bills, but neither made it out of committee.

Shank said a tort reform bill last year could have ended the "lottery mentality" of large malpractice awards. Miller, a lawyer, prefers a risk-loss fund to pay claims.

"If the Governor really wants to help lower malpractice rates, he would be sponsoring insurance reform bills," the Maryland Trial Lawyers Association's Web site says.

Del. John P. Donoghue, D-Washington, said the slowdown sends "a strong message that there's need for action right now."

He favors new caps on malpractice lawsuit awards and certifying physicians who testify in malpractice cases, measures the doctors have proposed.

Some physicians point to California's system with award caps as a model.

However, a nonprofit group called The Foundation for Taxpayer & Consumer Rights says on its Web site that premiums there still rose for many years, but a rollback of rates helped right away.

The Washington County work slowdown includes general surgeons, neurosurgeons, pulmonary medicine doctors, anesthesiologists, cardiologists and plastic surgeons. In some cases, the slowdown will leave no doctors available in the county for certain procedures.

Hamill and Delaportas said patients who need nonemergency procedures when the slowdown hits should consult their primary-care physician to figure out where to go.

Riggle said examples of elective, or nonemergency, surgery include hernias, gallbladders, breast biopsies and colonoscopies.

Donoghue wasn't so sure.

"To me, a breast biopsy is very important, as is a colonoscopy," he said. "They may be elective, but they may be critical in determining a life-threatening situation."

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