Doctors’ med-mal payments double for state program

By Alex Roarty

Doctors across Cumberland County and the rest of the state mailed their payment into MCare last week, the statewide fund that helps them pay for malpractice lawsuits.

It was more expensive than usual.

House Democrats are backing a plan from Gov. Ed Rendell to end a subsidy program, known as the “MCare abatement,� that helped doctors pay into MCare. Rendell wants the General Assembly to approve his plan to give health insurance to every Pennsylvania citizen before the program is continued.

The ultimatum didn’t please local doctors, and it’s left them lighter in their checkbooks this week.

Their payment doubled, on average increasing from $5,000 to $10,000, according to Dr. Andrew Behnke, president of the 250-member Cumberland County Medical Society.

That’s not loose change, even for doctors, Behnke said, adding that many are already struggling financially.

It has also reinforced the perception that Pennsylvania is a hostile place to practice medicine, he said, a problem that has already forced many doctors to leave the state.

“Other doctors are very concerned about what this is going to do to the economic climate,� he said.

The financial opportunities are much greater in neighboring states, Behnke added.

“Why would you practice in Pennsylvania when you can just go to Maryland and not deal with this?� the doctor said.

The Pennsylvania Medical Society has established an emergency loan fund to help doctors make the extra payment, Behnke said, although he does not know of any Cumberland County doctors who have had to use it.

Doctors, including Behnke, have asked Rendell to abandon his plan, which he doesn’t think will provide doctors enough reimbursement.

Rendell is pushing for the approval of a $1 billion expansion of the health insurance program to cover an additional 220,000 adults who cannot afford other coverage.

Republicans who control the Senate are critical of the health insurance provision and encouraged the House instead to pass a bill approved by the Senate in December that will extend the medical malpractice subsidy through the end of 2008.

In the House, Democrats thwarted a move by Republicans to bring the Senate bill to the floor. In addition to extending the MCare abatement, that bill would direct $50 million to help hospitals computerize records and institute infection-control practices.

House Republicans charged the governor with making the abatement program a political football.

“This is absolutely unnecessary and hurts all 12 million Pennsylvanians by forcing doctors out of the commonwealth to find more affordable malpractice insurance,� said Katharine Watson, R-144, in a statement Tuesday.

More than 35,000 doctors and other medical professionals originally won the malpractice-insurance subsidy in 2003, when premiums surged by double-digit percentages annually before stabilizing in recent years.

Dr. Theodore A. Christopher, chairman of the Emergency Medical Department at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia, said the bigger insurance bills will have a devastating effect.

Teaching hospitals will have less money for education and research, while some doctors will leave the state or retire, creating even longer lines at already understaffed emergency rooms.

Still, he noted that emergency physicians agree with the idea of expanding health insurance since the uninsured typically look to emergency rooms for help.

“We’re on the same page� on health insurance,� Christopher said. “I think we disagree with how they get there. You can’t put this on the backs of the physicians.�

The Associated Press contributed to this report

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