ANNAPOLIS – An expected 2,000 health care providers will converge on the State House today at a rally to address soaring medical malpractice costs, and Dr. David Hexter will be just one of them.
As an emergency physician, Hexter’s medical liability insurance costs increased 30.1 percent – up to $35,000 this year, and his insurer, Medical Mutual, predicts the same jump or higher for the next year.
His hospital’s emergency room broke records this year for number of patients seen, while simultaneously cutting physicians’ hours to afford liability insurance premiums.
The rally is the latest development in the medical malpractice fight, which has become a battle between doctors’ organizations pushing legal reforms and public interest groups touting changes in the health care system as the solution.
“The problem we’re targeting . . . is the soaring cost of malpractice coverage, which is driven by soaring claims’ payments coming out of the courts,” said Michael Preston, executive director of MedChi, the state’s physicians’ association and the rally’s organizer.
MedChi supports a four-point plan to curb liability fees:
– Limit the cap on pain and suffering compensation — which is at $630,000 and rises by $15,000 per year.
– Assess economic damages based on real numbers, limiting payments to costs paid by insurers, which are often much lower than doctors’ fees.
– Fund future losses over time through an annuity rather than a lump sum.
– Modify lawyers’ contingency fees.
“If the compensation system is not affordable to people who have to pay for it, there are consequences not only for the doctors and nurses, but for patients. If a doctor goes out, the services are not available,” said Preston.
That’s what’s happening in Cecil County, said Hexter, where 33,000 patients are without primary health care after the county’s largest family practice went bankrupt through a malpractice suit.
But opponents said the courts aren’t to blame.
“To put this all on the legal system is being blind,” said Jackson Williams, legislative counsel for Public Citizen, a watchdog group. “The problem isn’t the legal system. It is that medical malpractice is continuing.”
Williams said doctors must realize medical mistakes are more costly — people today are more valuable because they earn more money, and they insure their lives for more. The solution should be making health care safer, rather than limiting court payouts, he said.
Malpractice liability costs are also a result of poor insurance practices, Public Citizen said in a January report.
Traditional ways of pricing – which charge high-risk specialists more – create perverse incentives, said Williams.
“Health care is supposed to be a system. If a family practitioner is referring a woman to an obstetrician . . . they are essentially passing off the risk to other doctors,” Williams said, noting insurers should not discriminate among doctors, creating an unnecessary “shortage” of certain specialties.
The topic will be a hot issue in the Assembly this session, with Gov. Robert Ehrlich, who will speak at the rally, expected to sponsor legislation within the week. Ehrlich’s office declined to provide any specifics about the bill.