Malpractice insurance reform could stem loss of Pa. doctors

By Brad Bumsted

Melanie Richman drives more than two hours each day on a round-trip to Youngstown, Ohio, to work as an emergency room physician.

The cost of malpractice insurance in Pennsylvania is a major reason Richman, of Sewickley, took the job out of state.

“I’ve worked in Pennsylvania since 1992, and I’ve seen no significant malpractice reforms at all,” said Richman, who claims to save thousands of dollars on her insurance premiums in Ohio. She spoke Monday on her way to work and didn’t have specific numbers available.

Richman believes legislation introduced at the state Capitol yesterday that would forgive doctors a percentage of medical school loans might help, but it’s “a little Band-Aid” for a larger problem.

“You can retain some physicians for a while by a program that lets them off the hook on their loans,” Richman said. But, she said, if the larger problem of malpractice insurance costs and reimbursement rates for doctors aren’t resolved, doctors will continue to leave the state.

The bill introduced by Deputy Speaker John Shapiro, a Montgomery County Democrat, aims to give doctors incentives to practice in Pennsylvania. It would establish a medical school forgiveness program for doctors who agree to practice 10 years in the state. The program would forgive 10 percent of loans each year for qualified applicants.

Shapiro said his bill is needed because the state is failing to attract and retain doctors. The Pennsylvania Medical Society says statistics show the number of doctors practicing in the state for the past five years essentially hasn’t increased or decreased. Doctors are leaving the state, spokesman Chuck Moran said, but the number is hard to quantify.

Still, said Shapiro, “With the growing demand for health care in the state, coupled with a large number of physicians retiring in the next decade, we are facing a crisis that needs to be addressed now.”

The program, expected to cost $40 million a year, would be administered under the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency. It was not clear how the state would pay for the program.

Shapiro’s concept is backed by the Pennsylvania Medical Society, the Hospital and Healthsystem of Pennsylvania and the American College of Physicians.

“We support all efforts to keep young physicians in the state,” Moran said.

“I think a loan forgiveness program is a good idea,” said House Minority Policy Chairman Mike Turzai, a Bradford Woods Republican whose wife is a physician. “But unless you take on lawsuit abuse reform, specifically caps (on pain and suffering awards), you are not getting to the heart of reform.”

Proposals to cap lawsuit awards stalled during the 2005-06 legislative session.

Turzai said Republicans intend to introduce legislation dealing with liability reform in about two weeks.
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