Insurance costs force physician to end practice

By Dave Hodges

After having an obstetrics and gynecology practice in Tallahassee for 24 years, Dr. Tara Wah is ending her career in medicine in November. The economics of her practice due to medical malpractice insurance rates are driving her out of business, she says.

Wah has written her patients a letter relaying the news. “It is with deepest sadness that I retire from the practice of medicine in Tallahassee,” it begins. “I am in good health and I love caring for patients, but I can no longer afford malpractice insurance.”

She is one of three ob-gyn practitioners at Azalea Women’s Healthcare, which she founded in 1998 with midwife Suzee Taylor. Colleagues Dr. Michelle Hoggatt and Dr. Adrienne George will be left to keep the practice going.

“I felt like it wasn’t my decision,” she said in an interview. “I felt like it was something I was forced into.”

She has no student loans to pay and no children. Her husband, Dr. Paige Harbaugh, retired eight years ago. Recruiting a doctor to fill her vacancy has been difficult because of the financial situation.

“I have gone without a salary for the last two months. I can’t afford that any more,” she added. “I can’t work an 80-hour week and not get paid.”

Her insurance premium was $35,000 for the year in 1993. It climbed to $60,000 by 1999. Last November the bill came in at $123,000. “I called them and I begged and pleaded, and I got $10,000 taken off that,” Wah said.

The liability risk for ob-gyn doctors is a particular problem, said Lynne Takacs, director of communications and public relations at the Florida Medical Association, which represents more than 17,000 doctors in Florida

“They have one of the highest medical malpractice insurance rates in the state of Florida because delivering babies carries with it a lot of risk,” she added.

Wah’s departure comes at a time when the medical profession is working to attract more doctors, especially those who are committed to practicing in rural areas and in communities underserved in medicine and health care.

The financial strain of insurance costs, however, makes the economics of a medical practice difficult to endure for many. “It’s something we are seeing more and more, especially in Tallahassee, and it’s unfortunate because we don’t see a lot of female ob-gyn’s,” Takacs said. “It’s very sad.”

Check back on for an update of this story and look for additional reporting in the Tallahassee Democrat tomorrow.

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