Malpractice lawsuits decline

JOE ROJAS-BURKE
http://www.oregonlive.com

For years, physician groups in Oregon and nationally have railed about a malpractice crisis said to be driving up costs and forcing doctors out of business.

But a study published Wednesday suggests that malpractice damages awards have declined substantially in recent years.

The consumer advocacy group Public Citizen mined the federal government’s National Practitioner Data Bank to track malpractice payments made on behalf of doctors from 1990 to 2005. Among the findings:

The average payment for a medical malpractice verdict, adjusted for inflation, dropped 8 percent.

The total number of malpractice judgments and settlements declined 15.4 percent.

The number of payments per 100,000 people declined more than 10 percent.

Public Citizen has stood with trial lawyers in opposing efforts by medical groups to limit awards for damages. The Washington, D.C.-based group asserts that lawmakers should focus on reducing medical errors and tightening doctor discipline and oversight.

But the Oregon Medical Association, the state’s largest doctor group, counters that the high cost of malpractice insurance is hampering Oregon’s effort to recruit physicians where they are needed and that doctors continue to cut back on offering high-risk medical care to minimize their legal exposure.

Doctors and others in the health care industry spent $5.2 million in 2004 trying to limit medical malpractice awards with a ballot measure. Voters rejected it.

The Oregon Medical Association for now has given up on getting a state cap on damages, but the group is promoting several other ways to limit doctors’ malpractice costs, spokeswoman Paige Webster said.

For instance, the OMA is urging lawmakers to fund a program that would pick up some of the costs of unusually large awards. The group also wants to pass a law that would require courts to reduce damages by amounts an injured patient receives from a third party, such as a health insurance company or the government. The OMA also hopes to extend a state subsidy that pays as much as 80 percent of malpractice insurance for hundreds of doctors who qualify as rural practitioners.

But Gov. Ted Kulongoski and several lawmakers promised to clamp down on the rural aid after an analysis by The Oregonian showed that the program is sending millions of dollars to plastic surgeons, dermatologists, eye doctors and other specialists working in thriving cities and suburbs.

Lawmakers made eligibility so loose that doctors working everywhere but the state’s largest cities qualify, The Oregonian reported in September. Of more than 1,100 doctors who met the criteria to qualify for support in the program’s first two years, fewer than 200 worked in communities with serious unmet medical needs, as defined by the state’s Office of Rural Health.
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