Spitzer to unveil plan to lower malpractice costs

BY JAMES T. MADORE
http://www.newsday.com

ALBANY – Gov. Eliot Spitzer will unveil a plan in several weeks to overhaul the medical malpractice system as more doctors threaten to stop practicing because of soaring insurance rates.

Speaking to 2,000 physicians here yesterday, Spitzer said he was trying to fashion a winning proposal, similar to last year’s changes to workers’ compensation, which cut expenses by 20 percent and improved benefits. He is working with lawmakers, doctors, insurers and other interest groups.

Like workers’ compensation, changes to medical malpractice have been stymied for decades under Democratic and Republican governors. But Spitzer vowed to get something done.

“I’m not participating in this exercise … so I can propose something that will go nowhere,” he told the state Medical Society. “We want to do something that will have a real impact … to deal with this issue in a way that alleviates the pain that you have been feeling.”

Society members, many dressed in white coats, gave Spitzer four standing ovations.

Hours later, patients’ rights advocates accused the second-year governor of excluding them from the talks.

“We’ve been shut out of this process for the large part,” said Joanne Doroshow of the Center for Justice & Democracy.

She and Arthur Levin of the Center for Medical Consumers are members of a task force appointed by Spitzer to study medical liability. Both said they knew nothing about the legislative remedies that Spitzer will announce.

The pair also described as “myths” the assertions of Spitzer and the Medical Society that the high cost of malpractice insurance was driving doctors out of the state, causing shortages in obstetrics and other specialties, and threatening insurers with insolvency because of large damage awards.

The task force was created in July when the Insurance Department approved a 14 percent hike in malpractice premiums. The increase jolted doctors, coming after the stable rates of Gov. George Pataki’s 12 years in office.

Spitzer blamed Pataki yesterday for precipitating a crisis by artificially keeping down the cost of malpractice coverage while damage awards continued to soar. A 2006 report found the average award rose from $6 million to $8.1 million between 1999 and 2005. Some insurers now face bankruptcy.

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan) opposes capping damage awards, as is done in about 35 states. But Silver, who works at a personal-injury law firm, said he would consider “freezing” insurance rates.

Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno (R-Brunswick) called for action to help doctors, saying the exodus had to stop.

While Spitzer gave no details of his plan, internist Herb Ausubel of Valley Stream applauded the effort. If malpractice had been reformed in the 1970s, he said, “New York would be the premier place to practice medicine instead of a dung-hole to practice medicine.”

Still, victims of medical mistakes argued the problem isn’t high premiums but bad doctors.

Craig and Jennifer Lattuga of Shirley said their infant daughter’s heart failure was misdiagnosed in January 2006 as acid reflux by Stony Brook University Medical Center. The couple said the hospital refused to discharge baby Giana and police eventually transported her to Columbia Presbyterian Hospital for successful heart surgery. The Health Department has since disciplined Stony Brook.

“Doctors need to be at their finest,” said Craig Lattuga, an electrician. “Someone needs to police them so their patients aren’t at risk.”

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