Doctors' insurance costs put mothers, babies at risk

Judd Gregg

With the closing of the Weeks Medical Center maternity ward in Lancaster, N.H., in April, residents of the North Country will be left with only one hospital for prenatal and maternity care throughout the entire 1,830-square-miles of Coos County. Women living in Pittsburg, our northernmost town, will be forced to drive either 63 miles to Berlin or 70 miles to Littleton for crucial medical care, and that is unacceptable.

The effect of this closure will be compromised care for women when they are expecting a baby, and increased risk of complications for mothers and babies when they are forced to travel such long distances to give birth. With the combination of rising gas prices and bad winter weather, driving these long distances may not be possible for many women living in the North Country.

This closing is a snapshot, reflecting the significant shortage of doctors who provide prenatal care and deliver babies in America today. This shortage is due in large part to the nationwide medical liability crisis that has made it difficult for many doctors to continue to practice, brought on by the predatory practices of trial lawyers and their supporters in Congress.

For doctors to generate enough income to pay for their skyrocketing medical liability insurance, it is necessary for these doctors to deliver a large number of babies to counteract the costs that are generated by the extraordinary number of lawsuits. In rural areas, such as northern New Hampshire, there simply are not enough people to generate enough income to pay these high liability insurance premiums. This results in not only higher medical bills for patients, but fewer doctors and loss of quality facilities, such as the Weeks Medical Center maternity ward.

Doctors in the Granite State have faced double-digit annual premium increases, including increases in some years exceeding 16 percent for obstetricians and gynecologists. This has occurred even though there have been few successful lawsuits brought against New Hampshire baby doctors. Rather, these premium increases reflect the national attack on baby doctors by the trial bar. In 2006, the American College of Obstetrician and Gynecologist estimated that nearly 8 percent of obstetricians nationwide stopped practicing altogether because of the high cost of liability insurance.

I met with an ob-gyn doctor from the North Country who gave me a first-hand account of this crisis. The insurance premiums this doctor was paying were equal to the first five months of his earnings each year, even though he never had a malpractice claim filed against him. These high premiums left this good doctor in a Catch 22: the doctor knew he was one of only a few in the North Country who could deliver babies, but that these premiums left him in the red for the first five months of each year, putting the financial security of his practice in jeopardy.

In an attempt to help solve this inequality in care for women in rural parts of the country, I have introduced the Healthy Mothers and Healthy Babies Access to Care Act in the Senate for the last five years. This legislation uses proven and reasonable standards to make the medical liability system more fair, predictable and timely, and to increase access to doctors who provide prenatal care and deliver babies for women.

My legislation is based on successful medical liability reforms implemented by the State of Texas. Before reforming its liability rules, Texas had lost many of its obstetricians despite a growing population. Thanks to comprehensive reforms, Texas has gained hundreds of new obstetricians.

This bill ensures that injured patients who pursue malpractice cases get quick, unlimited compensation for their economic losses like doctor and hospital bills, lost wages, and other tangible losses, while setting reasonable limits on damages for pain and suffering. This will have a significant impact on doctors and patients, especially in rural areas like the North Country. It will allow doctors who deliver babies to practice medicine and still make a living. It will ensure that women in rural communities will have access to doctors without having to drive for miles and miles to get much-needed health care.

Unfortunately, the Democratic majority has consistently voted to derail this legislation, choosing the interests of trial lawyers over the care of mothers and their children. Trial lawyers do not want any kind of medical liability reform that could limit their earning potential on multimillion dollar settlements. Sacrificing the health and safety of expectant mothers and children to preserve the income of trial lawyers is bad policy and bad medicine.

However, it is unfortunately a reflection of the politics of our time. One of the largest contributors to the Democratic Party today is the trial bar. These trial lawyers contribute to the Democratic Party for a reason: trial lawyers want congressional support for their agenda, and as the checks continue to pour in for their party, the Democrats oblige.

I have again introduced legislation in the Senate that will begin to address the serious crisis of entitlement spending and improve the long-term sustainability of Medicare. The proposal will include comprehensive medical liability reform, which is one of the most pressing issues facing the health care community today. It is my hope that the Democratic majority will take up this legislation quickly, and rather than siding with the trial lawyers again, the Democrats will stand on the side of mothers and their children, and the doctors who care for them.

Judd Gregg, a Republican, is the senior senator from New Hampshire.

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