Saturday, October 26, 2002

Doctors want malpractice law changed

By Lori Burling
The Associated Press

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Obstetricians and gynecologists across the state are proposing legislation that would mirror the state of California's newly reformed malpractice law.

"We're facing a severe crisis in this area," said 4th District state Rep. Bob DeWeese, R-Louisville, who also practices medicine. "We're facing a train wreck if something is not done about this liability issue."

More than 75 physicians gathered Friday in downtown Louisville for a liability/malpractice conference sponsored by the Kentucky chapter of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

The one-day conference focused on how to prevent the loss of female health care physicians because of the unaffordable malpractice insurance they must carry. Medical malpractice premiums have increased 150 percent in the last year because of the increase of malpractice lawsuits by trial lawyers and larger jury awards, according to ACOG figures.

"Legislation will be introduced in January," Mr. DeWeese said.

The legislation would follow the 1975 Medical Injury Compensation Reform Act, known as MICRA, that California voters adopted after physicians - specifically in high-risk specialties such as obstetrics - were forced to close their practices because they could not afford malpractice insurance.

MICRA's purpose is to limit legal claims to prevent an inflation in malpractice premiums. The law limits attorney contingency fees, places a $250,000 cap on non-economic damages, ensures compensation on economic damages - such as medical bills and lost wages - and provides a statute of limitations on malpractice claims, among others.

Penny Gold, executive director for the Kentucky Academy of Trial Lawyers, disputes the physicians' claims and disagrees with limited litigation.

"There is very little evidence that premiums would come down," Ms. Gold said Friday. "Insurance companies are increasing premiums to offset bad stock ventures. They're trying to make it back up by gouging the doctors."

According to figures released by the Kentucky Trial Court Review, there were 65 malpractice suits filed in Kentucky in 2001, with 18 plaintiffs winning in court.

Since the enactment of the California law in 1976, premiums in the west-coast state have increased 168 percent, compared with 420 percent nationwide, according to 1999 figures provided at the conference.

Dr. Kim Alumbaugh, president of the state chapter of ACOG, said the increase in insurance could lead to a shortage of physicians. Currently in the state, 390 obstetricians are delivering babies for about 54,000 patients, she said.

"If even one obstetrician leaves the area because of unaffordable insurance - that's 140 patients that will have to find medical care somewhere else," Dr. Alumbaugh said. "We're trying to prevent a health care crisis."

Area doctors shared their personal concerns at the forum. A group of Louisville obstetricians said it paid a $250,000 malpractice premium last year. This year the group is looking at a $750,000 premium. A Lexington orthopedic group paid $200,000 last year, and this year five insurance carriers denied coverage.

"The health care system is collapsing and something has to be done," Dr. Alumbaugh said.

U.S. Rep. Anne Northup, R-Ky., and U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Friday that they support legislation that would limit litigation.

Ms. Northup said she believes legislation would be introduced in the House in 2003, but Mr. McConnell - who introduced an amendment this year - said nothing would pass the Senate.

"There's not a single Democrat that would support any kind of legal reform," Mr. McConnell said.

Both members of Congress and Mr. DeWeese advised the physicians to lobby their state representatives.

"If there is a threat to access of health care, the general public will rise up, talk to legislators and insist they fix this problem," Mr. DeWeese said.

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