MDs Carry Malpractice Concerns To Albany

By George Wallace

Some 250 physicians from John T. Mather Memorial Hospital, St. Charles Hospital and other healthcare facilities in Suffolk County descended on state government offices last week to press their case for reforms that would rein in alarming increases in malpractice insurance costs, which they say are driving doctors out of business in the region.

Accompanied by physicians and healthcare providers from such area hospitals as Good Samaritan, St. Catherine of Siena, Brookhaven Memorial, Peconic Bay and Southampton, representatives told Governor Eliot Spitzer, New York State Superintendent of Insurance Eric DiNallo and others that, without relief from prohibitive charges for malpractice insurance, the quality, accessibility and affordability of healthcare on Long Island are in jeopardy.

“A lot of us took the drastic step of closing down our offices, gathering at 4 a.m., riding up to Albany by 8 a.m. and – with some 2,000 participants – filling an auditorium,” said Dr. Maria Basile of Mather. “We heard the governor unveil his ideas about medical care, and from the superintendent of insurance, who laid out the numbers.”

The visit was prompted by concerns that a proposed $50,000 physician surcharge and 15% to 25% annual rate hikes in medical liability premiums are being contemplated for New York’s physicians.

That, say physicians like Basile, constitutes a crisis.

“At this point, it’s restricting access to quality healthcare,” she said. “My malpractice bill used to be like the phone bill. Now it’s our biggest bill, bigger than my mortgage, bigger than the lease for my office, or my school loans. It’s a huge, huge burden.”

As previously reported in Suffolk Life, the state’s Department of Insurance has said there is a deficit in the assigned risk pool for coverage of malpractice claims in New York, due in part to the suppression of rates. The few insurers willing to carry malpractice in New York have lost a significant amount of money, and the department believes that an increase in premiums or some other measure is necessary to avoid further financial deterioration of these companies.

“We believe the solution is to get to the cause,” countered Dr. Erika Jurasits, also from Mather. “The problem is not the rates, but how to protect patients and getting rid of frivolous lawsuits.” That, many agree, means reform in how court cases are handled and in how premiums are assigned to physicians, in a manner that makes it possible for an insurer to be willing to handle the malpractice business in the state and, at the same time, provides adequate protections to patients.

Last year, Spitzer created a task force to confront the fundamental drivers of high medical malpractice costs. The group was asked to consider all potential solutions to controlling medical malpractice costs, including risk management, legal reform and regulatory changes to foster a stable, competitive environment with financially sound companies – including new entrants into the marketplace – that offer competitive rates to New York’s healthcare providers.

While the task force’s findings have been presented to Spitzer, he has not released them yet. In the meantime, however, physicians have become more vocal in pressing for reform in the way malpractice claims are being handled in the courts.
Basile said she is encouraged by measures that are being contemplated in Albany at the legislative level. Jurasits agreed, saying physicians are hopeful that proposed legislation to ease the threat of gigantic lawsuit awards would receive support and that Spitzer’s task force on the medical insurance crisis would be successful. “The governor spoke with us for quite awhile and expressed a positive position to support reform,” she said.

Among the proposals is a measure that would put together a pilot study on speeding up the process of creating medical courts. Another is a medical liability reform act, which includes caps on non-economic damages. Then there’s a proposal to increase transparency when it comes to expert witnesses, so that their qualifications may be more fairly established.
And a measure introduced just last week by Senator John Flanagan (R-Smithtown) would lower the threshold of primary insurance physicians would have to carry in order to be eligible to obtain second levels of malpractice protection.
These are all part of a package of measures that are needed to address the issues, said Dr. Elliott Dreznick, a gastroenterologist at Mather. “Flanagan’s proposal is a great proposal, but I think a lot more has to be done than that,” he said. “There is definitely a need for malpractice and tort reform.”

And keeping that message before the legislators and administration in Albany, concluded Basile, is of paramount importance. “We came back with a message to give to all our patients, and to everyone who has a stake in the issue of healthcare,” she noted. “It’s going to take time, and a sustained effort.”

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