Monday, May 24, 2004

Ads say we're losing doctors

Bill would restrict malpractice suits

By Amy McCullough
Enquirer Columbus Bureau

COLUMBUS - Doctors in Greater Cincinnati are "going, going, gone," or at least on their way out the door, according to an ad campaign run by the Ohio State Medical Association.

Tim Maglione, senior director of government relations for the association, said the campaign so far has spent $200,000 to run full-page ads in every major newspaper asking people to call their lawmakers and persuade them to pass legislation making it tougher to sue doctors.

As medical malpractice insurance rates skyrocket, doctors say they are being forced into early retirement or must move their practices out of state.

Ohio lawmakers passed a malpractice reform bill that took effect last year to limit damage awards. But so far, insurance rates haven't dropped. In some cases, doctors are paying more than $100,000 a year for malpractice insurance.

Now, doctors are calling for even more reform.

The ads support a bill that would require expert witnesses used at trial to be more qualified. The bill also would force malpractice insurers to gather and distribute data to back up their claim that frivolous lawsuits are causing yearly double-digit increases in insurance rates.

The full-page ad was a surprise to Rep. Jean Schmidt, R-Loveland, who sponsored the measure and hopes it will pass before the session ends next week.

"It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that there is an issue," she said. "If we don't begin to address the issue more aggressively we are going to find, in the next 10 years, a serious collapse in health care."

The ad campaign targets "frivolous lawsuits" for the increased premiums. But lawyers argue that there is no proof to support such theories. Gerry Leefeberg, a spokesman for the Ohio Academy of Trial Lawyers, said his organization has continually demanded that doctors come up with data to support their opinion that frivolous lawsuits have contributed to soaring malpractice insurance rates.

"They have refused to provide anybody with that information because it does not exist," he said.

Maglione said 75 percent to 80 percent of all malpractice cases are closed without any money being awarded to the plaintiffs. But the lawsuits still carry a price tag.

"The ultimate result of this dilemma is very real pressure on the availability of access to vital health care services in Ohio. And, unfortunately, the effects of this crisis fall squarely on the shoulders of patients," Maglione said.

The intention of the bill was to set standards for doctors testifying in malpractice cases, but the focus has shifted to gathering data on lawsuits. Neither Sen. Scott Nein, R-Middletown, the chairman of the Insurance, Commerce and Labor committee where the bill sits, nor Senate President Doug White expect further complications.

Both senators say they hope to pass the bill next week before session lets out.

Dr. Walter Matern, a Cincinnati doctor pictured in the ad, said he decided to retire early because of the inflated malpractice rates.

After nearly 30 years as a general surgeon, Matern, 64, said he wanted to slow down. But the $49,000 insurance premium made that impossible. Now Matern trains residents part-time at Jewish Hospital.

"When I saw that you have to work a half a year to make malpractice rates I said, 'I'm not going to do it,'" he said.

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