When healing costs too much

Sunday, July 21, 2002

The shock from Jim Lawson's July 4 death in a Nevada auto accident was felt well beyond his family and friends.

The two-car crash on a busy street leading to the Las Vegas airport came just one day after the nearest trauma clinic, at the University Medical Center, closed down. The 58 orthopedic surgeons who rotate through the hospital had insisted on relief from the soaring cost of medical malpractice insurance.

No one can be sure his death, confirmed at an emergency room an hour away, could have been avoided. Trauma centers generally offer more effective attention for accident victims.

But it prompted a quick July 13 reopening of the university center. Some 10 to 15 of the doctors agreed to become temporary employees of the county hospital, limiting their liability to $50,000, while the governor tries to enact legislation that would restrict medical malpractice awards.

The number of communities suffering similar problems is mushrooming.

This summer, two Pennsylvania hospitals, one Arizona hospital and a clinic in Oregon closed their obstetrics units.

Several counties in upstate New York have no obstetricians covering night shifts.

Soon, two counties in Pennsylvania won't have a neurosurgeon. Seven hospitals on the Mississippi coast share three neurosurgeons, one of whom, Terry Smith in Biloxi, is likely to leave next month because he can't find insurance.

Thirteen insurance companies have refused to cover Smith, who currently pays $65,000 in annual premiums. One company may agree to cover him, but it is likely to cost $100,000, an amount he says he can't afford.

Rising premiums

Mississippi is one of 12 states where rising premiums, tied to awards by state juries in malpractice cases, are creating a crisis, according to the American Medical Association. The others are New York, Nevada, Florida, Ohio, Texas, Georgia, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Washington, Oregon and West Virginia.

Because of risks associated with certain medical conditions and forms of treatment, some specialties pay especially high rates, and those rates are compounded by being charged in states where laws place fewer limits on jury awards.

For example, while premium increases this year average about 15 percent nationwide for all practices, rates for obstetricians and gynecologists in Pennsylvania are set to balloon by anywhere from 40 percent to even 81 percent, according to Medical Liability Monitor, a trade publication. In West Viriginia, they are catapulting anywhere from 29 percent to 36 percent.

The average jury award for medical malpractice doubled to $1 million in the six years ending in 2000, according to Jury Verdict Research, a private database used by lawyers, insurers and doctors.

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