Staten Island doctors join rally against insurance rates
by Staten Island Advance
Scores of Staten Island doctors put down their stethoscopes this morning to take up posters and banners.
Rising before dawn, the 150 or so borough physicians trekked 170 miles to Albany to join about 1,500 fellow doctors from around the state. Their goal: To rally against what they say are excessive medical malpractice insurance rates.
The move may have paid off.
After hearing from the governor and the state Insurance Department superintendent, there is hope. They say a possible $50,000 surcharge against them may be off the table.Â
“Most of us are cautiously optimistic that the $50,000 surcharge won’t happen,” Dr. Ralph K. Messo, president of the Richmond County Medical Society, said today in a telephone interview from Albany. “It turned out to be a positive day. It gives us a glimpse of hope the disaster plan won’t happen.”
A task force appointed by Gov. Eliot Spitzer was considering such a levy to solve the state’s medical malpractice insurance funding woes. By law, doctors can be surcharged to make up deficits to pay medical malpractice claims.
The typical Island obstetrician-gynecologist pays an eye-popping $160,000 to $225,000 in annual malpractice premiums, doctors say.
Dr. Messo said part of the Island contingent rode two buses up to the rally.
Some ralliers carried banners proclaiming, “Enough Is Enough!” while others asked who would deliver babies if obstetricians are forced to close their practices. In a symbolic gesture, many left white lab coats on the steps of the Capitol to show how doctors are leaving the state in droves because of soaring malpractice rates.
“New doctors are choosing not to practice here,” said Dr. Messo. “Many areas across the state are facing a shortage of doctors, especially for specialists.”
In July, Spitzer created a task force to probe the state’s rising medical malpractice costs. The group was formed on the heels of a 14-percent medical malpractice insurance premium spike — the largest increase in 14 years.
Insurance Superintendent Eric R. Dinallo said then the current crisis was created by the prior administration’s appropriation of $691 million of medical malpractice insurance reserve funds for general state expenses. The Medical Malpractice Insurance Plan, the state-regulated, high-risk pool for doctors declined coverage by commercial carriers, is $500 million in debt.
A spokesman for Dinallo said today the task force’s report is to be released in the spring. Messo, however, said word is it may come out the next week.
The spokesman, Andrew Mais, could not say whether a potential surcharge is completely off the table.
“We’ve consistently said the task force is looking to ameliorate the burden of medical malpractice insurance, including the surcharge, on doctors,” he said. Assemblyman Lou Tobacco, who met with doctors, said legislators need to pitch in.
The South Shore Republican is sponsoring or co-sponsoring bills to cap certain awards, such as pain and suffering, in medical malpractice cases. He also supports establishing a pilot program of specialized “medical courts” that would use “specially-trained judges” and “objective independent medical expert witnesses” to adjudicate medical, dental and podiatric malpractice cases.
“If we are serious about delivering the best quality care to New Yorkers, then we need to be serious about making certain that doctors remain in New York and practice medicine here,” Tobacco said in a statement.
However, some consumer and patient advocates dismiss such proposals as “non-starters.”
“We certainly don’t think that insurance problems that doctors may be having should be solved on the backs of patients,” said Joanne Doroshow, executive director of the Manhattan-based Center for Justice & Democracy.
Ms. Doroshow said tighter regulation of insurance rates, the insurance industry, and of doctors, themselves, are better solutions.
A recent report showed that 4 percent of the state’s 80,000 physicians account for 50 percent of medical malpractice payouts, she said.
“The real crisis is that there’s far too many preventable medical errors — errors that kill and injure thousands of New Yorkers each year,” Russ Haven, legislative counsel of the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG) said in a statement. “The best way to reduce medical malpractice payouts in New York is by adopting a laser-like focus on preventing medical errors.”
— Contributed by Frank Donnelly