Doctors' Insurance Rates Falling

By CAROL GENTRY The Tampa Tribune

Florida’s medical malpractice insurance rates have dropped significantly in the past three months and are likely to drop again in coming months, carriers say.

While Florida’s physicians and surgeons pay the highest liability rates in the nation, four of the five carriers in the state have cut rates since December or have a reduction pending.

Executives say they expect to lower rates again later this year, assuming current trends continue. There has been a steep plunge in claims since 2004, they say.

“Lawyers aren’t suing doctors as often as they used to,” says Bob White, president of First Professionals Insurance Co. of Jacksonville. “I’ve been in Florida 25 years, and I’ve never seen it this low.”

The question of malpractice insurance affordability and availability came up this week, when a lawsuit was filed against Town & Country Hospital for requiring doctors to buy a policy rather than self-insure. A hearing is scheduled for this morning on the medical staff’s request for an injunction to delay implementing the policy.

Florida law allows physicians to “go bare” if they show proof that they could pay off a judgment of up to $250,000 within 30 days and notify patients in writing that they have no liability policy.

By adopting stricter standards without approval from the medical staff, the board of Town & Country violated doctors’ rights, says the lawsuit by plastic surgeon Charles A. McLaughlin Jr. and unnamed others.

The court papers don’t say why McLaughlin decided to go bare; usually cost is cited. Surgeons pay much steeper rates than family physicians; however, rates in Tampa Bay are among the lowest in the state, according to a draft copy of an upcoming report by Milliman Consultants obtained by The Tampa Tribune.

The report shows current annual rates for the usual coverage for family physicians in Tampa Bay average about $16,000, compared with $18,000 in Orlando, $19,000 in Jacksonville, $26,000 in Palm Beach and $31,000 in Dade and Broward counties. The usual coverage is $250,000 per claim and $750,000 per year.

Florida’s largest medical malpractice insurer, First Professionals, cut its rates 11.2 percent Dec. 1, although a special assessment from the state made the premium decrease closer to 8 percent.

Rate cuts may soon plunge even faster than that. A month ago, a state hearing officer took testimony on a request by the state’s insurance consumer advocate for a 40 percent rollback in medical malpractice rates, saying the industry wasn’t moving fast enough. The industry awaits a decision.

However that goes, the trend in malpractice rates is clearly down. The insurer of last resort for doctors, the Florida Medical Malpractice Joint Underwriting Association, has seen a steep drop-off in customers. It peaked in 2004 with 1,069, and had just 305 as of December.
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