Doctors’ e-mails suggested frustration before rallies, work stoppage

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Associated Press

TRENTON, N.J.: Some e-mails widely circulated among New Jersey doctors before last month’s work slowdown urged them to “inconvenience patients” as they pushed lawmakers for help with rising malpractice premiums, says a California consumer group.

Some passages contain suggestions from a few doctors, including the one running the discussion list, that doctors make patients pick up prescriptions or delay rescheduling routine appointments canceled during the slowdown so patients would experience significant delays.

Jamie Court, executive director of the Santa Monica, Calif.-based Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, said Monday the doctors’ aim was to disrupt health-care delivery to sway voters. Court’s group cited e-mail passages where one doctor urged others to pressure reluctant colleagues to join them or ostracize them as a “scab.”

“The other thing that bothers me is this is being used as a model” in other states, said Court, who planned to ask New Jersey officials to investigate.

But state regulators, doctors and even the foundation say there’s no evidence anti-patient strategies as suggested by some e-mails were used. Doctors say the inflammatory ideas were just frustrated physicians blowing off steam over recent malpractice premium increases. So far, no patients have filed complaints about the doctors’ job action with the state.

Dr. Steven Shikiar, vice president of the Hudson County Medical Society and an organizer of the slowdown, began compiling the e-mails of his opinions, notes from other doctors, and malpractice news last May; he now claims nearly 3,600 recipients.

He said Monday there was nothing to be gained solely from aggravating patients. Also, he said he knows no doctors who did so deliberately and that the doctors decided “it was better to lead by example” than alienate colleagues.

“We are not trying to take this out on patients. We want to keep our patients on our side,” stresses one Jan. 22 e-mail.

Most material in the e-mails – some running to 80 pages – is humdrum: media reports and legislative updates concerning malpractice, notes from doctors about how the problem affects them, calls for nonmembers to join medical groups.

Many New Jersey doctors closed their offices for three to five days in February to protest rising malpractice insurance costs. Thousands of doctors and supporters gathered at rallies to urge legal reforms, particularly a limit on pain-and-suffering damages in malpractice cases.

Various legislative proposals are moving through the state Senate and Assembly – slowly enough that some new postings to the e-mail list urge another job action eventually.

One legislative leader who was criticized in some e-mail messages and compared to Saddam Hussein, Sen. Joseph Vitale, D-Middlesex, said “there’s really no place” for such inappropriate criticism. He said it was wrong for doctors to even suggest using their patients as pawns in their effort.

But one of the slowdown’s organizers, orthopedic surgeon Dr. Steven Berkowitz, said doctors writing e-mails about inconveniencing patients are very frustrated and fear they will have to move their practices from New Jersey because of mounting malpractice premiums.

“They would never violate the Hippocratic oath” against harming patients, Berkowitz said.


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