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Doctors begin surgery cutback

November 16, 2004|by SCOTT BUTKI

scottb@herald-mail.com

HAGERSTOWN - Some doctors at Washington County Hospital began postponing elective surgeries Monday to call attention to surging malpractice insurance costs, an organizer of the action said.

"Citizens must realize what could be lost if the necessary reforms are not made," said Dr. Karl P. Riggle, a Hagerstown general surgeon who is the administrative director of Washington County Hospital Trauma Center.

During an average week, doctors at the hospital perform about 330 elective surgeries, but this week, 235 to 250 elective surgeries have been rescheduled, said Riggle.

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Riggle is head of Save Our Doctors, Protect Our Patients, a group of medical workers who want limits placed on jury awards and lawyers' fees in malpractice cases.

At a press conference Monday morning, Riggle said about 50 to 60 physicians affiliated with Washington County Hospital are reducing - or halting - elective surgeries for a one-week period that started Monday.

The doctors will use their time to talk to elected officials, their patients and others about why they feel malpractice reform is needed, Riggle said. Each doctor has been asked to contact at least 100 patients to explain the issue and to ask the patients to be active on the issue, Riggle said.

About 300 physicians are affiliated with the hospital, Riggle said. More doctors might join the slowdown today, he said.

The physicians who are not involved in the action will take care of emergency surgeries and urgent care at Washington County Hospital, Riggle said.

"We are committed to ensuring that no patient's care is compromised in this process," Riggle said.

Riggle said the protest should not be defined as a "slowdown" but as a "call to action."

The initial plan was to have as many physicians as possible stop performing nonemergency surgeries to draw attention to the issue, Riggle has said.

The current plan ensures that other doctors cover for those involved in the protest, lessening the effect of the shortage, he has said.

James Hamill, president and chief executive officer of the hospital's parent company, Washington County Health System, said Monday the doctors' protest has the support of the health system.

"We respect the rights of the physicians to take time out of their practices to talk to the legislators to affect change. And at the same time we recognize our obligation to make sure that the full array of services that our health system offers are available to all citizens in this region," Hamill said.

Riggle cited gallbladder removal as an example of an elective surgery that might be postponed for some patients.

Riggle said he plans to perform only one elective surgery this week, a previously scheduled breast cancer surgery.

Technically, that surgery is elective because it could be performed next week instead of this week, he said. But the fact he will perform the operation shows he understands why the patient might not want to delay it, he said.

At Monday's press conference, Riggle, who recently was appointed to the Governor's Task Force on Medical Malpractice and Health Care Access, and two other doctors spoke of the need for state medical malpractice reform.

Save Our Doctors, Protect Our Patients is seeking limits on jury awards and lawyers' fees in malpractice cases. The doctors blame multimillion-dollar jury awards for steep increases in malpractice insurance premiums. They say the rising cost of insurance will drive many Maryland physicians out of state or out of business unless the General Assembly provides relief.

Riggle said his malpractice insurance premium will jump from about $43,000 this year to about $74,000 next year, or about one-third of his take-home pay.

Riggle and other leaders of Save Our Doctors are to meet with state elected officials today and will hold a rally in Annapolis Wednesday morning, Riggle said.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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