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Insurance fees rob clinic of volunteer doc

November 20, 2004|by MARLO BARNHART

marlob@herald-mail.com

HAGERSTOWN - A retired Washington County physician who has been volunteering at the Community Free Clinic for the past five years will be leaving at the end of the year after learning Thursday that the clinic no longer will be able to pay the premium for his malpractice insurance.

"I've volunteered at the clinic every Friday since 1999," Dr. Edward W. Ditto III said. "They always paid my liability insurance, which was $2,000 a year."

Ditto said he understood the new amount needed to insure him would be $5,164 annually as of January. He also was told that amount could double before 2005 is over.

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"This is yet another example of the problem in this state with malpractice insurance," Ditto said.

Robin Roberson, executive director of the clinic, said Friday that the decision not to pick up the tab was a tough one.

"With the expense of moving into our new building, we can't afford to pay this increase," she said.

Started in 1990, the clinic operated in donated space at the Hagerstown Union Rescue Mission on North Prospect Street for four years, then rented a building on West Franklin Street for 10 years. It moved to 249 Mill St. in early October, purchasing a former doctor's office.

In addition to Ditto, another retired physician, Dr. Max Byrkit, will be affected by the insurance premium situation, Roberson said. A third retiree, Dr. Charles Spencer, had stopped volunteering some time ago.

"I have grandchildren going to college to think about," Ditto said as to why he wouldn't take on the cost of the insurance himself.

Dr. John R. Caruso, a member of the steering committee of Save Our Doctors, Protect Our Patients, said free immunity for medical providers who volunteer is a key factor in the fight by a group of medical workers who want limits placed on jury awards and lawyers' fees in malpractice cases.

"Doctors like Ditto with years of experience have a lot to contribute," Caruso said. "It's a shame to lose that."

Echoing that disappointment, Dr. Karl Riggle, who heads Save Our Doctors, said he and other physicians are focusing their efforts at reform on keeping a strong presence in Annapolis.

"We call it Tuesdays in Annapolis - I have been there a dozen times and I will continue to go," Riggle said.

Those efforts at the state capital will go on as a weeklong "call to action" by some physicians ended Friday, Riggle said. Caruso said doctors are making "personal decisions" on whether to continue reducing or halting elective surgeries.

At a news conference Monday morning, Riggle said between 50 and 60 physicians affiliated with Washington County Hospital would be reducing - or halting - elective surgeries to call attention to the problem.

Another steering committee member and chief of staff at Washington County Hospital, Dr. Dino Delaportas, agreed that he and other physicians will continue their lobbying efforts to get the word out to the public about the crisis and how it affects them.

While Roberson said the clinic hates to lose the physicians, for now the expense for those two physicians, as well as for any other doctors who might want to volunteer at the clinic in the future, is just too high.

"We're very sad that we are losing these very valuable providers," Roberson said.

The clinic, which has 35 regular medical providers, will have to channel the patients Ditto and Byrkit were seeing to other physicians, she said.

In 2003, the clinic had about 10,000 patient visits. Roberson said the number of visits so far this year is about 8,300, and likely will reach 11,000.

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