Medical Malpractice Suits Cause More Expenses and Fewer Doctors

By Autumn Buys

With the 2008 presidential election creeping closer, issues and controversies from around the nation are being tugged from their shadows to be diagnosed and treated by each candidate. One of these issues is medical liability reform.

This term refers to the increasing rate physicians pay in insurance premiums to compensate for expensive malpractice suits.

Certain specialties cost more than others, the most expensive including neurosurgeons and OB/GYNs.

Because the practice of obstetrics and gynecology affects two lives-a mother and a newborn-rather than just one, the cases tend to be more emotional and expensive. 

The large sums awarded in these malpractice suits drive the insurance rates up, forcing many practicing OB/GYNS to consider other specialties, or to abstain from taking on additional patients. Furthermore, fewer medical students plan to pursue this occupation.

With this decrease in personnel, women around the nation are left without OB/GYNs.

“Lawsuits are driving many good doctors out of practice,” President Bush said in his 2006 State of the Union address. “Leaving women in nearly 1,500 American counties without a single OB/GYN.”

Bush emphasized this issue again in his last State of the Union address in January.

In an effort to find an antidote to this ailment, the President and others recommend passing federal legislation that will enforce a ceiling on how much money can be awarded in a liability settlement. The proposed cap is $250 thousand in non-economic damages.

Supporters of a cap on damages reference the success that similar legislation has had on a more local level.

“Medical liability reforms do work,” said Dr. William G. Plested, a past president of the American Medical Association. “After placing a cap on non-economic damages more than three decades ago, the medical liability climate in California remains stable with premiums in check. Texas enacted reforms and now patients benefit from an increase of physicians.”

Others, however, worry that a pre-determined limit on damages may not fairly recompense those who have suffered from medical negligence.

“There is certainly room for improvement in tort reform and specifically pertaining to a non-economic damages cap,” said Jim Bergstedt, a law clerk at Epperson, Rencher & Owens in Salt Lake. “It’s been a matter of ongoing debate on the local and national level and there a many factors that go into determining the level of such a cap. Of course, finding common ground on the matter requires compromise on both sides of the isle.”

Bergstedt explains that locally, medical liability reform has opposed the trend and has instead favored an increase in the limit on damages. As of July 1, 2001, the cap rose from $250 thousand to $400 thousand.

Each state differs in its rates of medical malpractice insurance. Many states with higher premiums, such as Oregon, Massachusetts, and New Jersey, face a shortage of physicians willing to practice there, leaving thousands of women without a doctor.

To prevent problems from arising, doctors have begun practicing what is termed “defensive medicine.” This equates to spending more time, and money, administering diagnostic tests that cover a broad range of possible maladies.

Often, however, defensive medicine techniques result in additional costs for the patient.

“We are faced with a dilemma sometimes,” said Dr. Jeff Barton, a practicing OB/GYN at the new Intermountain Health Care facility in Murray, Utah. “When a patient doesn’t have coverage with insurance and we don’t want to burden them with huge costs. We want to give them the most efficient test and a timely diagnosis without overburdening them, and trying to stay out of legal trouble at the same time. It can be a bit of a juggling act.”

Dr. Barton, who figures that the costs of his malpractice insurance has doubled within the last five years, also embraces an alternative theory used to prevent any patient conflicts.

“I think a good interaction with the patient, and having a good rapport with the patient from the beginning is number one,” Barton said. “It saves a lot of headache later on. Be up front and honest from the beginning.”

As the candidates caress the campaign trail, health reform remains a significant platform issue.

Senator Clinton proposes instituting a malpractice reform that provides liability protection for physicians who voluntarily disclose medical errors and who are willing to negotiate fair compensation.

Barrack Obama’s initiative involves strengthening laws that prevent insurers from overcharging physicians. Neither Democratic candidate supports a cap on non-economic damages.

Republican candidate John McCain seeks to pass liability reforms that extinguish frivolous lawsuits and employ a cap on damage rewards.

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