Saturday, January 11, 2003

Doctors push for relief on insurance

Malpractice law's effects to be slow

By Andrew Welsh-Huggins
The Associated Press

COLUMBUS - Doctors are already looking for short-term relief from medical malpractice rates despite a new law that was supposed to help.

Ideas include everything from persuading HMOs to increase their reimbursements to physicians to asking the state for financial help for high-risk practitioners such as surgeons or obstetricians.

"We know in the long term this will have a positive effect, but what can we do in the short term?" said Tim Maglione, spokesman for the Ohio State Medical Association.

Gov. Bob Taft acknowledged Friday that the new state law to fight rising medical malpractice rates won't do anything for doctors who need immediate relief.

"This bill is not a magic bullet that overnight is going to drive malpractice insurance rates down," Mr. Taft said after signing the legislation. "The purpose of this bill is to stabilize malpractice insurance premiums over time in the state of Ohio so that they remain affordable to Ohio physicians."

All five major insurance companies that provide malpractice coverage in Ohio say they won't reduce rates because of the law. They say rates could even rise for a time.

"We need to be able to see a positive impact from any type of legislation ... up front before we can start to make decisions about dropping rates or changing rates," Michael Cavanaugh, spokesman for Fort Wayne, Ind.-based GE Medical Protective, said Friday.

Dr. John Thomas, president of the Ohio State Medical Association, said doctors don't expect relief from the bill until they see if it works and is found constitutional.

The Ohio Supreme Court overturned a similar law in 1999.

Mr. Maglione said doctors are floating such ideas as using bonds similar to those carried by contractors. Another idea is declaring doctors who receive most of their pay from Medicaid patients as public officials, he said.

In that case, any medical malpractice lawsuit would go through the Ohio Court of Claims, which caps pain-and-suffering awards at $250,000, Mr. Maglione said.

The Ohio legislation signed Friday caps pain-and-suffering awards at $1 million.

Supporters of the bill say huge damage awards to malpractice victims force insurance companies to raise their rates. Opponents said insurance companies increased premiums to cover stock market losses.

Health insurance companies would not be able to increase reimbursements to doctors without passing the cost along, said Kelly McGivern, president of the Ohio Association of Health Plans.

"If you talk to employers, you'd be hard pressed to find anyone willing to accept a premium increase to cover doctors' medical malpractice rates," she said Friday.

The Ohio Hospital Association is working on ways to help doctors now, said spokeswoman Mary Yost. She wouldn't give details.

"We're really trying to identify some mechanisms that can help," Ms. Yost said.

Dayton obstetrician Evangeline Andarsio said Friday's law is needed to help the problem over time.

But Ms. Andarsio, 44, said something has to be done now. Colleagues in her office recently saw their insurance premium more than double from $35,000 to $80,000. She expects a similar increase for herself in May.

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