Local docs to lobby for malpractice insurance reform

By Jerry Gleeson

About 100 Westchester County doctors are expected to make the rounds of the state Legislature today, lobbying against threatened increases in malpractice insurance that they say will drive physicians out of New York.

Two buses were to leave the parking lot of the Medical Society of the County of Westchester in White Plains at 6 this morning. The local turnout is far bigger than in years past, when maybe 15 doctors would head to Albany to lobby, said Stuart Hayman, executive director.

The stakes are higher this year. State Insurance Superintendent Eric Dinallo is prepared to boost liability rates sharply to preserve the solvency of the companies that provide the insurance.

Among Dinallo’s options are a surcharge averaging $50,000 per doctor, based on a percentage of each doctor’s current premiums and to be collected over multiple years; a 15 percent to 20 percent annual premium increase over the next few years; and a $230,000 surcharge on each doctor in a high-risk insurance pool.

Dinallo’s office said that both the Insurance and Health Departments expect to announce proposals as early as this month that, “if implemented, could avoid substantial future increases in medical malpractice costs that doctors are legitimately concerned about.”

In August, Gov. Eliot Spitzer formed a task force of consumers, insurers, physicians and other interest groups to study medical liability insurance issues.

Physician advocacy groups blame the increase on higher awards for liability lawsuits. The average payout by the Medical Liability Mutual Insurance Co. has risen from $394,000 in 2002 to nearly $500,000 last year, the Medical Society of the State of New York said.

“What’s at stake is access to care,” Hayman said. Although the local medical society doesn’t track the number of doctors leaving the county, there is some anecdotal evidence that it’s occurring.

Hayman said a local gastroenterology practice recently broke up, and one doctor left to work in West Virginia. Hayman recalled telling the doctor that West Virginia was a big change.

“But I have guaranteed income there,” the doctor replied.

Dr. Catherine A. McGovern, an obstetrician-gynecologist who recently joined the Scarsdale Medical Group, said she pays $36,000 for a minimal liability policy. She knows of one OB-GYN who left Westchester in January to work in North Carolina.

The prospect of an average surcharge of $50,000 galls McGovern, who said that reimbursement rates for physicians’ services have been frozen for years. She said she is paid $2,400 for a delivery that once netted her $5,000.

“I’m not being reimbursed for my expertise. I make less money than I did in 1986,” she said. “Who works for less money every year?”

A spokesman for the Rockland County Medical Society could not be reached for comment. The state medical society expects about 1,000 doctors will be in Albany today.

Reach Jerry Gleeson at jgleeson@lohud.com or 914-694-5026.

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