Physicians protest cost of insurance

About 2,000 march outside State House

Ehrlich voices support

January 22, 2004|By Meredith Cohn | Meredith Cohn,SUN STAFF

Doctors from around the state, many wearing white lab coats over winter jackets, rallied in Annapolis yesterday against rising medical malpractice premiums, saying the costs have forced some to stop offering services such as delivering babies and have jeopardized access to other health care.

About 2,000 doctors and their advocates gathered in the chilly weather outside the State House and told stories about insurance premiums that rose at least 28 percent. They carried placards provided by the Maryland State Medical Society that declared "Will your lawyer deliver your baby?" and "Tort reform now."

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. told the crowd he would support much of the legislation the doctors are seeking, primarily a limit on jury awards for malpractice victims' pain and suffering.

Doctors believe the limits will reduce their premiums, as will other measures such as limiting lawyers' fees, although the governor's support for that is unclear.

"The last thing I want at the end of the session is a positive recollection of this day and no bill," Ehrlich said. "This crisis demands action this year."

That was good news for Karen Nicholson of Edgewood, who is six months pregnant with her fourth child, and was told in November that her doctor of 12 years would not deliver her baby.

Nicholson said she was "devastated, and a little bit panicked."

Her doctor, Carol Ritter, a Towson obstetrician-gynecologist, discontinued her practice this month, saying that her medical malpractice insurance would increase from $52,000 to $85,000 this year. After more than 20 years as a doctor with no lawsuits, Ritter said she has three cases pending against her practice. Ritter described the lawsuits as baseless - one of them was for a baby delivered by another doctor while she was out of town, she said.

Her malpractice insurance premium fell to $28,000 this year when she agreed to stop deliveries.

Premium halved

"I still wake up in the middle of the night and think someone is having a baby and I need to be there," she said. "Even if you win [lawsuits], you lose."

Judy Hidalgo, an Elkton obstetrician-gynecologist, said she stopped delivering babies because her malpractice insurance cost reached $60,000 with no lawsuits. She said it now is half that amount.

"I had to deliver 20 babies a month just to break even," she said. "I have two kids and didn't want to spend all my time at the hospital."

But at a nearby office building, a few dozen people who said they received poor medical care gathered to voice opposition to limiting jury awards. The victims, many in tears, recounted stories of lost children, parents and limbs. They said their anger was targeted at doctors who make mistakes.

Some said they want the medical profession to better police itself. And they point to a report from the consumer group Public Citizen that said about 3 per- cent of doctors were responsible for half of the malpractice awards in Maryland since 1990.

"I don't want the money," said Debbie Miller, a Westminster nurse whose lawsuit is pending in the death of her 58-year-old father who went into a hospital with a fractured hip and died from complications. "I want the doctor to say, `I made a mistake and I'm sorry.'"

Others at the gathering included Mark and Mindell Cohen of Owings Mills, whose 34-month-old daughter Brianna died after receiving five times the prescribed amount of potassium from a Johns Hopkins Hospital pharmacy.

The Cohens and other victims said they wanted the money to punish the medical professionals or, in some cases, to care for themselves for the rest of their lives.

`The real problem'

Gene Stilp, a field organizer for the Center for Justice & Democracy, a national consumer group that organized the counter-gathering, said that in addition to policing "bad" doctors, an evaluation of the insurance industry's recent premium increases is needed.

The increases might be the result of a bad economy and insurers' stock market losses, some victim advocates said.

"Let's not make this doctors vs. patients," Stilp said. "Let's figure out what the real problem is."

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