In Albany, malpractice debate rages on

By Joseph Spector
Star-Gazette Albany Bureau

Patients’ rights should not be neglected as the state grapples with finding a solution to growing medical-malpractice costs, good-government groups warned last week.

The groups put the blame for the malpractice problem on the state government for failing to rein in costs associated with malpractice insurance and for failing to weed out poor-performing doctors from the system.

“If the state cleans up its act, the problems that the insurance companies and doctors bemoan will disappear,” said Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen, a Washington D.C.-based group.

A report released last week by the group and the New York Public Interest Research Group claims that the rise in insurance costs is not the result of increased litigation. Instead, the report found that the problem was fueled largely by the state draining a $700 million fund that had been set aside to pay insurance for high-risk doctors.

The family of Kevin Deane, a Yonkers firefighter who died in April at Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan while recovering from a Colorado skiing accident, joined the watchdog groups in calling for greater protections for patients.

The family has filed a lawsuit against the hospital, claiming it was negligent in the 39-year-old man’s death. The family said that Deane showed improvement, but then died after irritation from a plate holding together his vertebrae caused bleeding in his esophagus that leaked into his lungs.

The state Health Department found that in his last two days at Mount Sinai, he was not examined by an attending physician, which is required by state law.

“Given the number of serious medical mistakes made each year in this country under the present system, I shudder to think what would happen if the wrongdoers were immunized from responsibility from their actions,” said his brother, Colin Deane.

In July, the state Insurance Department announced a 14 percent increase to medical-malpractice rates for health-care providers because the state’s medical-malpractice insurers were facing a $525 million deficit.

State officials blamed the deficit on years of not increasing the rates doctors pay for medical liability insurance. The state also bemoaned the reduction of the same $700 million insurance fund — which the state used in the late 1990s to help close budget deficits.

But doctors said July’s rate increase — which has equated to thousands of dollars a year in higher premiums — is putting them out of business.

Health-care officials said last week that the report from the watchdog groups misses the main point: the state needs tort reform to limit doctors’ exposure to malpractice lawsuits.

The size of jury awards in New York on medical liability cases has risen 66 percent over the last decade — from an average of $300,000 to $500,000, according to the Medical Society of New York.

“The problem is not the insurance companies ripping off people or bad doctors with the Wild West going on,” Medical Society lobbyist Gerald Conway said. “The problem is with the civil-justice system, which every study shows does not work.”

The impact of the insurance increase could mean fewer doctors, health-care agencies have argued. Yet the good-government groups argue in a study that the population of doctors is the highest in a decade, and malpractice payments have declined in recent years.
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