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Some docs' malpractice insurance could lapse

December 16, 2004|by GREGORY T. SIMMONS

gregs@herald-mail.com

HAGERSTOWN - About 120 doctors who practice at Washington County Hospital face losing their malpractice insurance in a protest aimed at state legislators, but hospital officials are waiting to see what action, if any, is necessary.

Dr. Karl Riggle, a trauma surgeon at the hospital, is one of the leaders of a movement pushing state legislators to curb rising malpractice insurance costs.

Riggle said Wednesday he was among about 40 percent of the doctors at the hospital who have intentionally withheld payment on malpractice insurance as one of the measures taken to try to bring attention to the issue.

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The payments were due Dec. 1. If they are not made by Jan. 1, the insurance could be dropped and the hospital could be forced to shut down some services, including its trauma center, said Riggle, president of Save Our Doctors, Protect Our Patients Coalition.

It is not clear how many of those doctors would not pay by Jan. 1 because it is a voluntary measure on the part of each doctor, Riggle said.

Hospital spokeswoman Maureen Theriault said in a phone message Wednesday that she could not immediately verify how many doctors had not renewed their insurance.

Theriault said the hospital is not facing immediate problems - "it is not really an issue" - but the situation regarding insurance nonpayment will be reviewed in January.

Riggle said there are about 300 physicians at the hospital, about 120 of whom are protesting by withholding their quarterly insurance payments. The protesting doctors include primary care doctors, trauma surgeons and specialists, he said.

On Tuesday, doctors asked Gov. Robert Ehrlich to freeze the Jan. 1 due date for the insurance payments. Doctors said the move temporarily would allow doctors to pay the amount they have been paying, which is much cheaper than the new rates, while legislators try to reach a solution.

Riggle said he spoke Wednesday with Ehrlich aide Don Hogan, who said negotiations were continuing on holding a special session of the General Assembly.

Riggle said his insurance premium due at the end of the month is $18,400, about $7,600 more than the quarterly payments for the current year.

He said he did not yet know what he will do Jan. 1.

"It depends on what happens," Riggle said. "I got two weeks and I sure ... hope I can write a check for last year's premium" instead of the new premium.

Riggle said that in the meantime, he and others continue to work to recruit other doctors into advocacy positions. He said there are now doctors at nine hospitals in the state who have indicated they will provide some sort of support during the upcoming legislative session to advocate for malpractice insurance reform.

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