By Jim Siegel
Enquirer Columbus Bureau
COLUMBUS - U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist said Wednesday Ohio's medical community is in a crisis, dismissing figures that show Ohio has more doctors today than two years ago.
Frist, a physician, spoke to about 20 central Ohio doctors in Columbus chosen by the Ohio State Medical Association. They passed along stories and concerns about what's wrong with the health-care system.
Topping the list was the cost of malpractice insurance, as premiums for Ohio doctors continue to rise by 10 percent to more than 80 percent per year.
"Physicians are leaving this state," Frist said. "Physicians in training don't want to come to Ohio because of a litigation lottery that has emerged in this state that is driven by frivolous lawsuits."
A report Sunday by the Enquirer found that doctors holding active Ohio medical licenses increased slightly since 2001, to 33,917 in 2003.
Frist noted he is licensed to practice in three states, and retired doctors account for some license renewals.
"The licensure has absolutely no correlation to quality of care or amount of care delivered," he said.
State figures also show the number of new licenses issued each year in Ohio has increased to 1,660 in 2003, up from 1,583 in 2001.
Ohio doctors say their problems with medical malpractice costs are severe.
Brothers Jim and Tom Schweiterman are the latest in a string of family doctors who have been delivering babies in Mercer County since 1893. Two weeks ago, they performed their last delivery - a fourth-generation baby for the practice.
With insurance costs, they can't afford to do more.
"It's about access, our patients, our poor young mothers who have to go elsewhere," Jim Schweiterman said. "It's not about competence. It's about coverage."
Frist said he has been pushing for medical malpractice reforms similar to California's, including better regulation of the insurance industry and limits on jury awards for pain and suffering.
Frist criticized Sens. John Kerry and John Edwards for blocking "common sense, bipartisan medical malpractice lawsuit abuse reform." He said he needs a few more Republican senators.
Brendon Cull, spokesman for the Ohio Democratic Coordinated Campaign, said insurance company profits are the real culprit.
"The Bush-Cheney campaign is out of touch if they are telling 114,000 Ohioans who lost their health care in the last three years that the real problem is medical malpractice," he said.
Ohio passed medical malpractice tort reform in early 2003. Before the law affects insurance rates, doctors say, it must be tested by the state Supreme Court, which shot down a similar law in 1999.
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