Op/Ed: Insurance industry, not lawsuits, to blame for doctors' problems

Buffalo News
Sunday, May 11, 2003


Last February, close to a dozen New Yorkers, all survivors of medical malpractice, traveled to Washington, D.C., to plead with lawmakers to reject proposals to limit the liability of negligent hospitals and doctors. Among them were David and Joyce Boyer of Hamburg.

David Boyer had suffered a stroke after surgery despite three positive blood cultures that were ignored by his physician in the weeks before the stroke. He had been a maintenance mechanic for a printing company, making $16.50 an hour. He was in late 50s when this occurred. Now he cannot use his arm and he has lost partial use of his leg. He is in pain constantly, especially his toes, which makes it hard for him to even put on shoes. Despite these difficulties, Boyer traveled to Washington to plead on behalf of the hundreds of thousands killed or injured by medical malpractice each year.

Boyer is one of the forgotten faces in the debate over how best to reduce insurance rates for some doctors. The ease with which the insurance and medical lobbies have begun to intimidate lawmakers in New York and elsewhere into considering a cruel legislative agenda to "cap" compensation to injured patients says a great deal about the vast power and economic control that these lobbies have. But in terms of the facts, it says little else.

It would be one thing if doctors were actually experiencing a liability insurance "crisis" in New York, as in some other states. But they're not. Last summer, New York's largest medical malpractice insurer was denied its requested premium increase, with State Insurance Superintendent Gregory Serio stating, "I don't think there is any further need for more rate increases at this point." The second largest insurer failed to even seek a rate hike in 2002.

According to the New York Public Interest Research Group, the number of physicians practicing in New York State has skyrocketed and is increasing at a rate faster than the national average. In fact, New York State ranks second in the nation for overall physicians per capita and is number four in ob/gyns.

But let's say, for argument sake, that some specialties, like neurosurgeons and ob/gyns, may at some future point experience sudden insurance rates hikes. Taking away patients' rights will do nothing to bring these rates down. Just look at states that have tried.

In January 2003, Ohio lawmakers enacted a cap on compensation for patients injured by medical malpractice. Almost immediately, all five major medical malpractice insurance companies in Ohio announced they would not reduce their rates. One insurance executive predicted his company would seek a 20 percent rate increase.

In Mississippi, lawmakers enacted a cap on medical malpractice verdicts in October 2002. Four months later, investigative news articles reported that surgeons still could not find affordable insurance and that many Mississippi doctors were still limiting their practice or walking off the job in protest.

Nevada also enacted a severe cap on compensation last summer. Within weeks of the law's enactment, two major insurance companies proclaimed that they would not reduce insurance rates for at least another year or two, if ever. The Doctor's Company, a nationwide medical malpractice insurer, then filed for a16.9 percent rate increase. Two other companies filed for 25 percent and 93 percent rate increases.

The fact is, today's insurance crisis for doctors is only a small part of a much larger insurance problem that is affecting homeowners, motorists and all kinds of policyholders in this country and around the globe. It's a crisis that is being driven not by New York's legal system but by the underwriting practices of the insurance industry.

Simply put, focusing on the legal system to solve an insurance problem of this magnitude is sheer folly. Only effective and meaningful reforms of the insurance industry can do that.

JOANNE DOROSHOW is a co-founder of Americans for Insurance Reform (a project of the Center for Justice & Democracy), based in New York; http://insurance-reform.org.



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